Resistance to a nightmare reimagined: Review of The Man Who Saw Everything

Oppressive regimes weigh heavy in the minds of citizens. 


For forty years following World War II, the German Democratic Republic governed the private lives of individuals with extreme surveillance and stifling authority. Infiltration of people’s behaviour, relationships and desires were commonplace, and movements in and out were severely restricted. The state commanded total knowledge and control. 

With its systematic power the GDR achieved not only obtrusive rule of external life but also breached the psyche, pervading personal lives, thought and perception. This amounted to a deeply intimate invasion by history’s most successful surveillance state. But it did not prevent citizens enacting forms of resistance to prevent government officials intruding. 


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 former GDR citizens have found avenues to voice historically private struggles against the paranoid state. Gestures of resistance by an outwardly subdued population allowed the protection of their inner worlds from Stasi agents. While the autocratic government and its oppressive laws inevitably seeped into minds, thought could not be absolutely controlled. Subtle forms of internal and external dissent, even covert sedition, were both possible and necessary.


In The Man Who Saw Everything, the latest novel by British author, Deborah Levy, we are taken back to the GDR where the impact of the regime is strikingly wrought on the inner world of a fictional outsider. Saul Adler is a British-German academic whose research takes him to East Berlin. There he encounters enigmatic figures, including Stasi agents, that irrevocably change him and his understanding of the world. We see a deterioration in his mental health and it is difficult to grasp what is real and what is illusion. Filtered through Saul’s perspective, the omnipresent state and its agents twist perception. As he becomes clinically unwell, Saul is repeatedly haunted by spectres of the regime.


Saul’s story traverses several decades, taking place in both modern-day England (within days of the 2016 Brexit referendum) and East Germany in 1988, just before the Wall was to fall. While the book only fleetingly references Brexit, the potential parallel with German history is foreboding. Published in the second half of 2019 it coincides with two significant events: the British public watching its government sever itself from the European Union in protracted chaos and the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.

Levy’s character is a demonstration in the extreme of how the security state bears upon the mind. She uses Saul’s narrative as a device to illustrate the political at the psychological level, operationalising Saul’s decline as the possibility of a future tyrannical state. By referencing Brexit Levy interweaves the current-day zeitgeist with a history she sees a risk of repeating. It is within this intersection where we might interpret Levy’s transportation of her protagonist through German history as her protest against the UK’s impending EU exit. 


Where invasion and oppression exists, so too does resistance. It is perhaps a human inevitability. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of anti-Brexiteers have marched the streets, desperate for the reversal of the decision that stands to isolate them from Europe. Levy distils such political resistance into Saul’s internal struggles. In Germany Saul becomes aware of parallels between the tyranny of the regime and a past he finds difficult to bury. He comes to terms with a latent desire and finds liberation in the repressive nation. Forming a sexual relationship with his male translator is his own personal revolution—a transformational response to the admonishment he received from his father for his sexuality. This act bears a similarity to those who confronted the East German ministry, those who engaged in relationships that were disapproved of and who persisted even in the face of death.


Albert Camus said that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.” Levy’s philosophy is one of the personal as political. She injects this maxim into her protagonist who houses metaphors for both the regime and its resistance, and a relation of the past to the present. She has a knack for getting beneath surface level, down to the unconscious mind. Using cameras and lenses, reflections and representations, layers of character depth and metaphor surface. It’s a technique that elucidates her key parallels. “Perhaps I was history itself,” Saul reflects, “floating around in a number of directions, sometimes all of them at the same time.” 


The Man Who Saw Everything signifies a government’s capacity for bearing almost absolutely upon and within a person. Levy, who is on record opposing Brexit, presents in her novel an ideology of State control and the way in which an oppressive system of government violates thought and shapes an individual. 

Looking forward, it is possible to conceive of a Britain isolated from the world around it, with walls erected and people barred from entering and exiting. The nation’s attempt to construct its own enclosure, partitioning itself from the rest of Europe, amounts to an act of extreme isolation and exclusion not unlike the German project. We might consider Levy’s book an intimation of that endgame, a warning of what it might signal for a self-exiled UK.


Levy’s novel attempts to connect the current day and the history that preceded it. It is a comprehensible illustration of the modern-day possibilities of a totalitarian regime. She reifies the German experience for a British audience with both a history lesson and a cautionary tale. 

Against the backdrop of an appalling history, Levy’s act of writing The Man Who Saw Everything is one of resistance to a state she imagines post-Brexit.