Culture & Conversation

Down the rabbit hole

1963 film The Great Escape, courtesy of United Artists

1963 film The Great Escape, courtesy of United Artists

How can we know someone, especially someone we’ve never met? Famous historical figures are easy. They have their footprints galvanized in historical documents. Everyday people are harder. 

This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla by Montreal-born Andrew Steinmetz is proof of how difficult it is to truly reconstruct someone’s life. This memoir traces Steinmetz’s travels through Canada and Germany researching Michael Paryla, his distant cousin, a virtually unknown theatre actor whose biggest claim to fame was his small part in the classic film, The Great Escape, alongside Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.

Steinmetz is driven primarily by the intrigue and mystery of Paryla’s death in Munich just before a scheduled stage performance. He was found locked in his own apartment comatose from a mixture of milk, whiskey and sleeping pills. In an attempt to understand why, Steinmetz reconstructs Paryla from the ground up, delving into his childhood internment during World War II, his father’s successful acting career, his family’s emigration to Canada, Paryla’s return in the 1950s, and his unstable theatre career thereafter.

The form of the narrative is the book’s most compelling part. Steinmetz admits that he “planned to spit out the book chronologically, but as it is, my hard drive is crammed with research notes, transcriptions of family letters, photographs and multiple drafts of the endless permutations of my book so far.” As a result, major themes of this book are dislocation and alienation. Fittingly, the narrative is constructed around fragmented scenes and details of Paryla’s life, jumping from scene to detail and from narrative prose, to movie scripts, transcripts, lists, and emails, all in an attempt to piece his cousin’s life together.

The choice of abandoning normal linear memoir is important. One section of the book that beautifully illustrates the need to follow an unconventional form is a chapter that describes Steinmetz’s online research during his travels. Using an online search engine’s automatic translation feature for comments left on a German film review site, Steinmetz uncovers things that symbolize his whole project. One comment on The Great Escape translates into English from German as follows: “Class film, shot in the never get bored, despite the length. Even top performances by actors. As a teenager, I liked the film really happy, but when I look at it today, I find the humour inappropriate, especially the cheerful music theme.” In many ways, this literal translation with its disparate elements and non sequiturs is representative of the author’s holistic approach.

Steinmetz finds even more fertile and intriguing details about Paryla’s past by looking at his cousin’s story from a different angle, by abandoning an overarching narrative and focusing on telling details. The glass of milk found near Paryla’s deathbed leads Steinmetz to crucial conclusions about Paryla’s health and physiology. Family anecdotes lead him to research his family’s internment during World War II. By abandoning linear narrative and piecing these fragments together, Steinmetz creates a whole that appropriately reflects Paryla’s dramatic existence.

Initially leafing through this book, I was wary that such genre-jumping would be pretentious. But most of Steinmetz’s fragments are gripping, moving and funny, and ironically, it is the prose in a few instances where the narrative loses momentum. The only unsuccessful part of the book is when Steinmetz’s stylized prose becomes overly sentimental:

“Outlines but no core. All talent and no substance. Gorgeously corrupt.

I’m thinking of another’s individual enigma and intrinsic mystery.

In the end you were captivating, and captivated.”

But these are minor quibbles about a stellar book. This Great Escape is a must-read.

This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla, by Andrew Steinmetz, Biblioasis.

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