It’s impossible to talk about this novel’s plot without discussing the central structure first. There’s hole in the center of this story and we are seeking to understand what’s missing because our central character is also trying to figure that out. He’s a writer and a scholar and inveterate learner, but he doesn’t know who he is, where he comes from, or what his history is. These are literal statements. So we’re getting much of his story as he tries to piece together this information. And to add to that layer of ambiguity and complexity, we’re also getting the story told second hand by the narrator (a persona more than anything akin to the narrator of Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness).
Austerlitz is a writer and he’s maybe losing his ability to communicate or write, and this seems like a relief in part to him, but also a terror. He triggers a memory of his childhood that leads him to investigate his past. He uncovers that he was moved from his home in the Czech homeland and placed in a Kindertransport and grew ultimately in England completely unaware of his past, his native tongue, his Jewish heritage, and his family. He uncovers late in life that he too is a survivor and a victim of fascism in a way that’s almost comforting because it provides answers, however horrific, to questions that have plagued him. It’s a beautifully spare novel that is almost the opposite of sentimental as we get more and more answers to Austerlitz’s questions.