by Stefan Heym
At the beginning of February I asked someone with a large book collection what German author he would recommend. He handed me The King David Report, by Stefan Heym. He had actually purchased a copy of the book in English for the sole purpose of encouraging more non-Germans to read it. I am delighted he did. Named after an actual document found in the Old Testament, the novel is narrated by the author of said document, beginning with a seemingly harmless request from the titular king's son Solomon that his father's history be recorded. On the surface, the book can be thought of as a speculatively fictional behind-the-scenes bonus feature of the Bible. Heym takes the source text to illustrate, in a very plausible way, how might an ancient king's court deal with the making of history. In one hilarious scene, the committee discusses the cicumstances of David's meeting with Saul, his predecessor (and eventual usurpee). Everybody knows that David first met Saul when he was called to play music for the ailing king. But everybody also knows that Saul met David after demanding to see the boy who smote the phearsome Philistine Goliath. In the end it is decided that both should be included as historical record (as it is in the actual Bible). Finding the truth(s) about David's life is the task of Ethan, the narrator. But as he learns more about the real David, he finds himself torn between conveying the accurate and unflattering or the glorifying. It makes for a gripping tale of mystery, lust, and murder, all told with refreshingly dry biblical prose. You'd never guess that the book is also hilarious (it is!).
But it's not until one takes Heym's context into consideration that the value of the novel really comes to light. Any book written by an East German in 1973 is likely to be infused with criticism of the regime, and The King David Report is no exception. Themes in the novel – David's utopian kingdom, the editing of the past, the shiny surface of Solomon's temple-in-progress – all reflect Heym's times. As he says himself in the Author's Note, "Opinions might also differ on the question of whether The King David Report is to be considered a historical novel or a biblical one, or a story of today, charged with political meaning. To me, it is all three." Read this book!