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There is exuberance and energy in Amanda Lee Koe’s prose, as well as dexterity in the way she keeps several balls in the air against a vast canvas.
There are three of them posing for the camera in the luminous black-and-white photograph. The first is jauntily dressed and clenching a cigarette holder between her teeth; the second is more elegant, even demure; and the third is almost self-effacing, as though wondering whether she belongs there.
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The photograph was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt (who, by the way, also went on to take the infamous picture of a couple in Times Square on V-J Day). The occasion was a ball in Berlin in 1928, the only time that Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl were spotted together. This charismatic image of the three screen idols is the inspiration for Amanda Lee Koe’s sparkling debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star.
Photography and fiction have often been linked because of how they shape what we see as real. WG Sebald famously used snapshots as a means of configuring his novels, and in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a performance artist re-creates Richard Drew’s iconic image of an unknown individual falling from the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Photographer Barry Salzman has argued that photography exists on a continuum between fiction and non-fiction, and that’s certainly one way of looking at Delayed Rays of a Star.
In the novel, Koe takes many known facts from the lives of Dietrich, Wong and Riefenstahl, adds more incidents as well as interior monologues, and throws in other characters touched by their radiance. She traces their disparate paths over the years, in lines extending outwards from the photograph, sometimes criss-crossing, but mostly going where their different backgrounds and natures lead them.
There is exuberance and energy in her prose, as well as dexterity in the way she keeps several balls in the air against a vast canvas. The time period of the novel covers several non-chronological decades; the characters travel from Berlin to Los Angeles to Paris, with visits to Shanghai and other cities; and there are cameos by those they encounter, from Hitler to Jack Kennedy to Walter Benjamin to David Bowie. This approach makes the novel unusual, and Koe’s ability to journey within as well as focus on outer detail – from clothes to lighting – makes it arresting.
Of the three, it is Dietrich who comes across as the most subversive. She blazes across her scenes like a comet, chutzpah undimmed, as we see her preparing for her breakthrough role in The Blue Angel till the time when, bedridden and decrepit in her Paris apartment, she grapples with her mortality. “Her genius, which ran contrary to intuition, was simple,” writes Koe. “Because she played them bored, her characters became complex.”
With Wong, in contrast, it is her tragic incongruity that is brought to the fore. Over the years, she grapples with being seen as too exotic for the Hollywood roles she wants and too American for parts such as the heroine of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. At one point, being interviewed by Walter Benjamin, she asks him: “Do you ever get the feeling that where life really happens is off the tracks?” Later, he writes to her with another resonant question: “Why are we able only to aestheticize or abhor difference?”
Riefenstahl, meanwhile, is featured as being fascinated by and mastering the technical aspects of film-making, and then being equally fascinated by the leader of the Third Reich. Bitterly and somewhat self-deludedly, she insists till the end that art was all she cared about, not propaganda or politics: “I was just an artist working in a certain place at a certain time. I am the scapegoat because it is easier to take your rage out on a woman, instead of the system.”
Through these three braided lives, with all their iconoclasm and queerness, the novel touches on issues that have reverberated over the years: of representation and falsification, of public roles and private selves, of the nature of art and the artist in an age of puffery and promotion.
Koe also creates other characters who are lit up by the lives of the trio. Chief among these are a Chinese immigrant who works as Dietrich’s maid for a while; another history-hounded individual whom the aged actress speaks to on the phone; and a tortured production assistant on the sets of Riefenstahl’s Tiefland. These characters are fictional, but they ground the novel in real-life concerns such as xenophobia and political repression.
“You talk like Marlene Dietrich,” crooned Peter Sarstedt in his 1969 hit, Where Do You Go To, My Lovely. In Delayed Rays of a Star, Koe pulls back the curtain to show not only where Dietrich, Wong and Riefenstahl went to, but also how they talked, how they thought, what they gave to the world, and what the world took from them.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.