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In His New Book, Daniel Kehlmann Says Hello to a Cruel World

He studied philosophy and German literature at the University of Vienna, but was more interested in Latin American magical realists like Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. “I was always captivated by stories of escape, especially escape by means of tricks and brilliance of the mind,” he says.

Part of this fascination also stemmed from the experiences of his family during World War II. His paternal grandparents were assimilated Austrian Jews who survived thanks to forged documents that disguised their identity. His father, Michael, was imprisoned in the Maria Lanzendorf concentration camp, but was released about a month before the end of the war.

Michael Kehlmann went on to have a productive career as a TV and theater director. Daniel Kehlmann regrets that his father never got to read “Measuring the World,” as he was suffering from dementia and died two months after it came out.

But without knowing it, a baton had been passed. While Michael Kehlmann was alive, his son never considered writing for the theater.

“I always felt like theater was my father’s world, so I didn’t want to get close to it,” Daniel Kehlmann says. “But when I wrote ‘Measuring the World,’ one of the upsides of writing a big best seller was that it freed me up to try out many things.”

He recently completed his fourth play, “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” about Jewish refugees who left Germany in 1939, were refused entry in Cuba and the United States, then turned back to Europe. Later this year it will be performed as a BBC radio play in an adaptation by Tom Stoppard.

For Kehlmann, the new play feels like a corrective. German fans for years congratulated him on writing books that had no relation to Nazi Germany. “I told them that I knew where they were coming from, but I didn’t set out to be official proof that we have left that past behind,” he says. “We haven’t, and we shouldn’t.”

Correction: Feb. 4, 2020
An earlier version of this article misstated the century in which Daniel Kehlmann’s book “Measuring the World” takes place. It is set in the 19th century, not the 18th.

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