The premise of Hannes Stein’s novel Der Komet is brilliant: World War I never happened. Therefore World War II never happened, Vatican II never happened, and so on. Stein delights in painting a picture of an Austro-Hungarian Empire around the year 2000, and imagining all the things that would be different. The Shoah never having happened, Vienna is full of Ruthenian Jews, and the Anti-Semitic party has a couple seats in the city council. The Vendée massacres have something of the status in the popular imagination that the Shoah has in real life. Steven Spielberg is a Hungarian director, and Vienna is the capital of the international film industry. Balkan pop-music, developed from Gypsy and Slavic folk music, dominates the music world the way that American rock music does in our parallel universe. And so on.
The premise also gives Stein a lot of big philosophical questions to explore: free will, providence, fate, chance etc. He does both his picture-painting and his big-question-mulling in a light-hearted spirit with a plot full of obvious symbols, and a set of somewhat superficially drawn characters. The main symbol is a giant comet (der Komet) which is set to destroy the world. This symbol is replicated by a flower-pot that falls from a window, first discussed as an hypothesis in a café, and then actually falling and smashing in the head of a rather nasty left-wing philosopher. (Stein, who is New York correspondent of Die Welt, seems to have vaguely right-wing sympathies). These events don’t provide enough action for Stein though, so he has to introduce a “human interest” sub-plot about the Austrian court astronomer’s wife having an affair with a student. This is somewhat pointless, but very Viennese and reminiscent of Octavian’s affair with the Marschalin in Rosenkavalier. Much more interesting are the conversations in the Café Zentral between the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, the head Rabbi of Vienna, and a Psychoanalyst. Also the sermons preached by the Cardinal and the Rabbi after the news of the comet reaches earth.
Stein ends on a rather pious note with some reflections occasioned by a group of Koran students, who travelled up to Vienna from the peaceful city of Sarajevo to witness the end of the world:
‘Allahu Akbar,’ they observed […] but since ‘akbar’ is a gradated form of the adjective, for which Grammarians have the technical word ‘elative,’ one ought rather to translate the Arabic thus: God is greater. He is always greater. Greater than our dreams and nightmares, greater than our worries; greater than all the terrible things that people do to each other. Greater than any end of the world. Greater than any stories that we could invent. ‘Allahu akbar’…
[Cross-posted from Goodreads]