Archive for October, 2016

Vampire in Love

October 30, 2016

vampire-in-love

In ‘Permanent Home’, the first story in Vampire in Love, the narrator listens to a death-bed confession from his father – “you should know your mother died because I arranged it.” As the story progresses, the son begins to suspect that his father is not being entirely truthful, in the end responding with the remark, “You are clearly confusing me with someone else. I am not your son.”

“My father, who had once believed in many, many things only to end up distrusting all of them, was leaving me with a unique, definitive faith: That of believing in a fiction that one knows to be a fiction, aware that this is all that exists, and that the exquisite truth consists in knowing that it is a fiction and, nevertheless, one should believe in it.”

It will not surprise regular readers of Vila-Matas that the line between fact and fiction remains blurred throughout many of the tales which follow in this collection of his short fiction, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. In ‘I Never Go to the Movies’ Pampanini uses the same line, “You’re obviously confusing me with someone else,” when he is mistaken for a famous, but deceased, director. Ironically, Pampanini has never been inside a cinema:

“Because in the movies nothing is ever true.”

The set-up is amusing, but it takes a writer of Vila-Matas imagination to finish such a story with a final flourish that depends not on Pampanini’s identity but on his dismissal of film as irrelevant to reality with a series of events happening in front of his eyes that seem straight from the cinema screen. The possibility if mistaken identity reoccurs in ‘Torre del Mirador’ where the narrator is regaled by a unknown man with his life story over the phone. Having left his wife because she made him miserable with her constant complaints regarding his ugliness he has undergone plastic surgery:

“For some days now I’ve had a completely different face. Even if I did go back, I doubt that my wife would recognise me.”

The narrator decides to investigate the truth of the story, tracking down the wife and visiting her under the pretence of buying her villa. While he is there a man appears claiming to be the husband but, of course, the wife has no way of recognising him. As the narrator leaves he sees another potential husband approaching.

The interaction between fact and fiction is mirrored by that between the artists and his inspiration. In ‘The Hour of the Tired and Weary’ the narrator spends his days following people and observing their actions, claiming to be “a pursuer of other people’s lives, a kind of lazy detective, a storyteller.” As the story progresses, questions are raised over how far he observes reality and how far he influences it. In ‘They Say I Should Say who I Am’ the narrator challenges an artist who has spent his life painting portraits of Babakuans having never set foot in Babakua:

“…if you had ever bothered to visit that diabolical place, you would know how very unfaithful all your paintings are. It makes me laugh to think of those critics who call you the last realist.”

The narrator’s point seems undeniable, until, that is, he begins to create his own portrait of Babakuans as a strange and eccentric race.

Vila-Matas’ literary light-handedness should not be mistaken, however, for a lack of seriousness. Suicide is a perhaps unexpected preoccupation throughout many of the stories. In ‘Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life’ the protagonist, burdened with the knowledge her son is fatally ill, encounters numerous opportunities (as she calls them) to die:

“She thought how easy it wold be to die and that she should not let this splendid opportunity pass her by.”

In ‘Death by Saudade’ the narrator discovers from a teacher that his friend, Horatio’s, family has a history of suicide:

“I could never write a convincing story based on the history of that family, because there are too many gunshots and too many leaps into the void, too much poison, too many people dying by their own hand.”

The title story, too, is touched by suicide; in others, the darkness seems to come from the time they were written (the early stories are dated). ‘Greetings for Dante’ (though given its own context by the story, the title is a clear reference to Hell) in particular seems an imagined response to Franco’s dictatorship.

On a more light-hearted note, there are some particular delights for Vila-Matas fans. ‘Sea Swell’ reads like an out-take from Never Any End to Paris as Vila-Matas visits Marguerite Duras hoping to rent a flat from her but having unfortunately taken amphetamines beforehand. In ‘Invented Memories’ we see him at his playful best in a tribute to Antonio Tabucchi.

Vampire in Love is not only a must for any admirer of Vila-Matas, but a fantastic introduction to his work if you have never read him before. And if you’ve never read him before, what are you waiting for?

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

October 26, 2016

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Sarah Lapido Manyika’s second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, is a story of old age and loneliness, yet, despite this, it is defiant rather than downbeat. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a retired English professor, a Nigerian living in San Francisco, who is approaching her seventy-fifth birthday. We sense her loneliness from the encounters she extends in the casual conversations which punctuate her day, for example the mailman bringing her mail to the door as her box is full:

“That’s the way I leave it these days because I like him stopping by.”

A visit to the local bakery is to “talk to my new friend, the cashier.” In a phone call about her driving licence she asks what the weather is like, assuming (incorrectly) that the caller is in India. That phone call is also the first sign that age may be catching up with Morayo – a mandatory medical check as a result of a complaint over careless driving, which she suspects may have been occasioned by her haphazard parking, something which is quickly verified for the reader:

“On my way out I glance ruefully at Buttercup, my beloved old Porsche, parked admittedly a little more than eighteen inches from the kerb.”

Shortly after, her age and isolation are foregrounded by a fall that sees her first hospitalised and then placed in a Home to recover. This brings her own fears to the surface:

“I think sometimes that I’m losing my memory. I’m more forgetful these days and, lying in bed all day, I worry. Will I become just another old woman with Alzheimer’s? And who will look after me?”

Later, she reflects:

“Old age is a massacre. No place for sissies. No place for love songs. No place for dreaming.”

Inside the Home, she also loses control of her life outside when an ex-neighbour helps out by tidying her apartment. Morayo has already explained her idiosyncratic way of organising her books – “arranged according to which characters I believe need to be talking to each other” – but to her friend, Sunshine:

“Books are everywhere, strewn haphazardly across the shelves, some with spines facing inwards, others facing out…like abandoned children’s toys, I find many more books tucked away in clothes drawers and cupboards.”

In her efforts to clean the apartment, some books are even accidentally thrown out.

Yet, despite all this, the novel is ultimately optimistic. Early references to Morayo’s undiminished desire may seem initially only to exacerbate her loneliness, but her time in the Home allows her to make new friendships, including one with a man, Reggie, whose wife has Alzheimer’s, which may lead to something more. Reggie, too, misses physical companionship:

“I dream of being held. Of being touched. Of being desired again.”

Even the books she loses are found by a homeless women who “gave some to friends, who like to read” as well as keeping one on Africa for herself, speculating she might go there to start a new life “cos, when you think about it really, with what I’m suffering now, my life isn’t that much better than what Africans are living through.”

Another reason for the novel’s ultimately optimistic tone is its use of multiple narrators. As well as first person chapters from Morayos’s point of view, we also experience events through the eyes of a number of other characters. These various viewpoints all display some level of kindness and empathy, despite having problems of their own to contend with, a good example being the otherwise incidental chef for the Home:

“Well I just like making people happy how I know best and that’s with food.”

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun may be the least threatening novel on the Goldsmiths Prize list, but it is a skilled character portrait which gently, but unflinchingly, contends with the fears of ageing, and demonstrates that we should not lose hope.

The Woman of Rome

October 21, 2016

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The Woman of Rome (translated by Lydia Holland) is the third Alberto Moravia novel I have read in recent times, though it differs from both Contempt and Boredom in having a female protagonist and narrator, Adriana. It is set in pre-war Italy under Mussolini, although this is not readily apparent: only one brief scene where Adriana enters a police station references the Fascist salute. Like Moravia’s other novels, it explores the passions which overpower even the strongest characters and in the heat of which their fate is forged.

From the very first lines our gaze is directed towards Adriana’s beauty, and her body:

“At sixteen years of age, I was a real beauty. I had a perfectly oval face, narrowing at the temples and widening a little below; my eyes were large, gentle and elongated; my nose formed one straight line with my forehead; my mouth was large with beautiful full, red lips, and, when I laughed, I showed very regular white teeth… Mother said that although my face was beautiful, my body was a hundred times more so; she said that there was not a body like mine in all Rome.”

Adriana’s mother is convinced Adriana’s body is her greatest asset and suggests that she becomes an artist’s model. Her attitude towards her beauty – that it is a saleable commodity – is revealed in the way she sells Adriana to the painter:

“’Where else will you find legs and hips and breasts like these?’ And as she said these things, she kept on prodding me, just like they prod animals to persuade people to buy them in the market.”

This, however, is only a temporary use of her looks – her ultimate aim is for Adriana to marry a ‘gentleman’ – and she warns her not to be seduced by an artist:

“They are all penniless… and you can’t expect to get anything out of them. With your looks you can aim much higher, much higher.”

Her mother hopes Adriana will learn from her own misfortune – falling pregnant with Adriana (“You were the ruin of me”) and a hasty marriage to a railway worker, whose death has left them in poverty, sewing shirts to make ends meet. She thinks of Adriana’s beauty as “our only available capital, and, as such, belonging to her as well as to me.”

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Adriana (of course) ignores her mother’s advice and falls in love with the first young man to make eyes at her, Gino. Though the first thing he tells her is a quickly uncovered lie, she decides “after all, he must be a decent, honest young man, just the man I had imagined for a husband in my dreams,” They begin to see each other regularly. In a line that sums up much of Moravia’s work, she reflects:

“And we all know love is a deceptive glass that can make even a monster appear fascinating.”

Adriana’s mother is furious when they get engaged but comforts herself with the belief that they will never marry when she discovers they have slept together.

This cynical attitude towards men runs through the novel in parallel with a vision of love which is immune to such realism. The former is best exemplified by Adriana’s friend, Gisella, who also believes Gino will never marry her. Gisella introduces Adriana to a ‘gentleman’ who “takes an interest” in her, Astarita. What seems a casual day out with Gisella, her own ‘gentleman’, Riccardo, and Astarita, is in fact a carefully planned trap to allow Astarita to seduce Adriana – and, when seduction doesn’t work, to blackmail her instead:

“Come on… Otherwise I’ll tell Gino that you came out with us today and let me make love to you.”

Even as this happens, Adriana is aware that it is a turning point in her life:

“A flash of intuition seemed to light up the whole future path of my life, as a rule so dark and torturous, and reveal it straight and clear before my eyes, showing me in that single moment what I would lose in exchange for Astarita’s silence.”

Soon after, Adriana begins to live of her ‘capital’, picking up men and sleeping with them for money.

At this point, one might ask what Moravia thinks of all this. Adriana is not driven to prostitution by desperation, but by her understanding of the alternatives: the happy marriage she once dreamed of seems increasingly unlikely; slaving away for little reward like her mother, unpalatable. Adriana’s choices are limited by her poverty, a theme Moravia frequently returns to. When Gino takes her to his employer’s home (he is a chauffeur) she immediately feels inadequate – only when she is naked is she equal to the woman of the house:

“Naked, I though, I would be as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Gino’s mistress and all the other rich women in the world.”

When she receives money for sex it gives her an almost physical pleasure:

“Once more as I took it I had the same powerful feeling of sensual complicity that Astarita’s money had aroused in me.”

Of course, the lure of wealth, and the willingness of young women to trade sex for it, is an issue which has not gone away. Perhaps also there is something of the compromises of living under Fascism in Adriana’s character. Despite her actions, she does not lose faith in love, however, and Astarita’s unrequited love for Adriana is echoed in her own feelings for Giacomo in the novel’s second half.

The Woman of Rome is a battleground between a cynical, reductive view of sexual relationships as transactions and one in which love is a passion we cannot control, both life-affirming and chaotic. Even in its conclusion it is difficult to pronounce a winner.

A View of the Harbour

October 13, 2016

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The loneliness which seeps through Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour like damp sea air may not be as ingrained as that to be found in the novels of Jean Rhys – these, are after all, people with appearances to keep up – but it would be fair to say that few characters in the novel experience much in the way of happiness. The friendship at its centre, between old school friends Beth and Tory, is built upon a betrayal; its other characters live in the desperate isolation best exemplified by Mrs Bracey, unable to leave her house and living only through what she sees and hears of others:

“Bored, she was, frustrated; not only her body but her mind, her great, ranging, wilful imagination… the brilliance, the gossip had gone from life.”

She complains that her daughter, Iris, who works at the local pub, the Anchor, “don’t give a crumb of it away. Thinks I’m being nosey.” Iris, meanwhile, is dreaming of a better life: “in her mind Laurence Olivier kept opening the saloon door and coming into the bar.” In the Anchor the running joke is the landlord’s assertion that, “It’s been quiet to-night,” every night.

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Mrs Bracey and Iris are typical of the novel’s characters, lives on hold, watching out for a better future like a ship on the horizon, in a town which has all but closed down:

“The Waxworks exhibition looked sealed, windows covered with grey lace; next door the second-hand clothes shop was having a lick of paint; the first coat, salmon pink, framed the display of dejected, hanging frocks; shutters covered the Fun Fair…”

(Even the lick of paint feels like a cry for help). Only Tory and Bertram, a retired sailor who has come to the coast to paint, make any attempt to influence their fate. Tory’s loneliness is palpable since the departure of her husband, Teddy, with a younger woman:

“That house maddens me. I shall let all the clocks run down, I think, so that I can’t hear them ticking.”

She finds herself beginning an affair with Beth’s husband, Robert – that they have previously avoided each other (“We don’t…hit it off”) perhaps speaks of some suspected attraction. Tory puts up some resistance but, as Robert says, “too late.”

Bertram, meanwhile, ingratiates himself with most of the other characters, even going as far as to spend time with Mrs Bracey. For a while it seems he may take up with Lily Wilson who, like Tory, is husbandless (in her case a widow) and fears going home alone each night (though having to go through a roomful of waxwork killers might make anyone a little nervous):

“As the days went by it seemed to Lily Wilson that her very happiness was staked upon Bertram… No longer did she fear the light failing and all those wretched thoughts about the future…”

As with most characters in the novel, Lily’s dreams falter and fail in the realm of reality; unable to bear a return to her lonely existence she instead sacrifices her reputation, leading Bertram to comment later, “Well, I compromised myself there… If all I hear of that girl is true.”

The only character who achieves any degree of happiness is Beth, seemingly oblivious to much that is happening around her as she types her latest novel. Her writing, however, seems as much as burden as a joy:

“Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did which, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died.”

This may sounds rather gloomy and depressing, but that takes no account of the wit and brio with which Taylor writes. While she is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, she frequently raises a sardonic smile in a way that is similar, though not as detached, as Muriel Spark. A View of the Harbour may well be her most accomplished novel as she skilfully recounts its numerous stories, blending and contrasting with precision and rarely a word wasted. It also has my favourite ending (nothing to do with the plot) as Teddy appears in his yacht, catching sight of the town and thinking, “Nothing has changed.” This view from the harbour, in a novel where watching plays such an important role, reminds us that, whatever we’ve seen, we haven’t seen it all.

Nightmare in Berlin

October 11, 2016

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If I could have read any book published in 1947 for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club I would probably have started with Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement or Jose Saramago’s Terra do Pecado. Unfortunately neither seems to have been translated into English (if you know differently, let me know), but fortuitously another previously untranslated work from that year has recently appeared: Hans Fallada’s Der Alpdruck. Nightmare in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that year.

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Jenny Williams (author of Fallada biography More Lives Than One) has described it as “The book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin,” and we see something of that in the novel itself which is largely autobiographical and makes reference to the central character, Doll’s, crisis of faith regarding his writing. We can find an accurate summary of the novel in the notes on Fallada’s life provided at the back:

“Marriage in Berlin to the 22-year-old Ursula ‘Ulla’ Losch, who also has a history of morphine addition; because of the ceaseless air-raids they…move out to [Ulla’s] wooden chalet in Klinkecken, on the outskirts of Feldberg; when the war ends Fallada is made mayor of Feldberg by the occupying Red Army; in August the couple suffer a breakdown and are hospitalised; they return to their apartment in Berlin-Schoneberg which is partly destroyed, partly occupied by others…”

Much of what Fallada writes in Nightmare in Berlin is therefore almost contemporaneous with events around him. The novel begins with Doll and his wife Alma awaiting the arrival of Russian troops after the SS pull out of the town. As other villagers consider hiding in the woods, Alma announces:

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not hiding anything away; my husband and I are going to welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house!”

Doll, however, is not feeling so optimistic: yes, he is pleased at the defeat of the Nazis, but at the same time he despairs for his country:

“…he knew, at least in theory, that ever since the Nazi seizure of power and the persecution of the Jews, the name ‘German’, already badly damaged by the First World War, had become progressively more reviled and despised, from week to week and month to month. How often had he said to himself, ‘We will never be forgiven for this!’”

He has a recurring dream (or nightmare) in which he is trapped at the bottom of a bomb crater:

“He was lying at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud. Without moving his head, he was able to see the trunks of trees that had toppled into the crater, as well as the facades of houses with their empty window openings, and nothing behind them.”

This sense of helplessness pervades the novel, a helplessness which is exacerbated by the Dolls’ use of morphine. Despite the threat of an occupying army Alma ventures out to “replenish her supply of gallbladder medicine,” going as far as to ask one of the Russian soldiers to open the chemist’s shop for her.

Morphine addiction also haunts their return to Berlin, as we see when Doll finally finds a doctor to see his wife (who has injured her leg). She refuses to go into hospital but is happy instead to be treated with morphine at home:

“The effect was immediate: no sooner had the needle gone in than Doll saw the relaxed, almost happy, expression spread across his wife’s face.”

Soon they have numerous doctors coming at different times in order to receive more and more of the drug.

After each of these periods of addiction Doll regrets the time wasted in what he calls their “bed-graves.” This fear of addiction may explain the inclusion of a lengthy detour which recounts Doll’s confrontation with Dr Wilhem, a vet reduced to alcoholism.

While addiction may not characterise every survivor, Fallada paints a vivid picture of life in the aftermath of the war. Doll has to come to terms with the fact they are little more than beggars:

“Now the Dolls, too, were down and out, with only a small suitcase to their name, homeless, dependent on the help of friends, strangers, maybe even public assistance.”

Every time they meet an old friend they discover that each of them is so eager to tell the story of their misfortunes they have no patience to listen to the other. Fallada is particularly good, as he is in all of his novels which I have read, at detailing the minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle. This, more than anything, gives the novel its dramatic force.

Nightmare in Berlin may not be as great a novel as Alone in Berlin, but it is a powerful testament of the time in which it was written. That strength is also perhaps its weakness, mined from life in reaction to the fear Doll expresses that “Maybe I’ll never write another book. Everything looks so bleak.” Even its last few pages, however, contains many wonderful moments, from Doll’s nurse, Truller, who asks everyone leaving the hospital, “And if you should hear anything – you know what I mean – you’ll let me know at once?” in reference to her missing son, to the young girl Doll spots in the street:

“Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say, ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I’m only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’”

And, of course, we can enjoy Doll’s friend and fellow writer, Granzow’s, remark that “one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for!”

Solar Bones

October 9, 2016

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Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is, in many ways, an apocalyptic novel. No wormhole opens in the sky threatening otherworldly invaders, nor are its streets crowded with shambling corpses, but behind the layered normality, as paragraph after paragraph piles up, thought over thought, there is an end of the world insinuation, like rot, weakening the structures of the everyday.

Solar Bones begins with Marcus Conway at his kitchen table:

“the kids all away now and of course Mairead is at work and won’t be back till after four so the house is mine till then, something that should gladden me as normally I would only be too happy to potter round on my own here, doing nothing, listening to the radio or reading the paper, but now the idea makes me uneasy, with four hours stretching ahead of me till she returns”

Over the next 200 pages Marcus reflects on his life and marriage, his relationship with his father and his two children, Darragh and Agnes, in one unspooling piece of prose, broken into sections but not sentences, each paragraph joined to the next in a relentless flow. Memories merge with recent events, as we piece together the days before beginning with the opening of Agnes’ exhibition where Marcus is shocked to discover she has been painting with her own blood:

“whatever dreams a man may have for his daughter it is safe to say that none of them involve standing in the middle of a municipal gallery with its walls covered in a couple of litres of her own blood”

Shortly after Mairead falls ill:

“I stood by the side of her bed, frequently at a loss as to what exactly I should do, her face glossed with sweat, skin glowing in the weak light of the bedroom and something deathly about the way this illness closed her eyes”

The illness is traced back to a glass of water she drank when they went out for a meal in the city after the exhibition: the water supply has become contaminated and Mairead is just one of thousands to feel the effect:

“the story started drifting towards us in mid-March, coming out of the middle distance with its unlikely news of viral infection and contamination, a whole city puking its guts up, the stuff of a B-movie apocalypse seventy miles up the road”

As Marcus nurses her back to health, a wider debate over how much control we have over our lives opens up. As a civil engineer, Marcus builds a world of function and utility, but in his job we see that it is politics which often has the final word. When he refuses to sign off on the foundations of a school, believing them to be unsafe, the contractor simply goes above his head to the local councillor. He points out a lamppost to Mairead which has been placed in the corner of a field so that the farmer can feed his cattle:

“that’s ridiculous
it’s not as ridiculous as trying to remove it now, when our engineer tried to do that he was told fairly sharpish that he could forget about making a budget submission the following year if he moved it”

He tells Darragh a joke about a lawyer, a doctor, a politician and an engineer arguing about which profession came first. The engineer proposes that it must be his as God was the first engineer when he created the earth and the heavens out of chaos. “Who do you think made the chaos,” says the politician.

The water contamination, too, is an engineering problem – “the politicians will make sure the engineers take the blame for this” – demonstrating that engineering alone is not the answer. Marcus knows this form a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague:

“it became clear from their craft and complexity that these machines, with their screws and gearing mechanisms were… the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their gifts”

Marcus’ doubts can be seen in his original intention to join the priesthood before turning to engineering, two different ways of understanding the world. The novel quietly questions us on how we understand the world and how much control we have over it. In the face of our limitations, it offers a very ordinary love.

The novel’s conclusion is revealed in its blurb (or maybe I’m just a bit slow) which luckily I hadn’t read, and would suggest any potential reader avoid. Often beautiful, at times elegiac, it is an immersive experience from which readers will not emerge untouched.

Martin John

October 4, 2016

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“I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be,” might well be the credo of the Goldsmiths Prize, so it is perhaps no surprise that Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John is to be found on the short list. Martin John is an unusual novel, but then Martin John is an unusual man:

“They had come for him after the incident outside the SuperValu shop, down the lane with the girl.
They had come for him with the one on the bus.
They had come for him that time with the girl who said he put his hand down the band of her skirt.
The other girl where he put his hand between her legs.
They had come for him.
They were her brothers. It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly.”

Martin John doesn’t mind the beating – “He derived pleasure from their aggression” – but his mam decides something must be done:

“- We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop, we’ve to stop it.
Could he stop it? What would he stop?
– Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She will never give voice to that which she wished stopped.”

Martin John is exiled to London where he finds work as a security guard:

“Mam has warned him the only thing keeping him on the straight is the job…
The job, she points out, stopped you doing the other stuff. The other stuff no-one can save him from.”

This not the tale of Martin John’s redemption or damnation, however: this is the story told but not the way the story is told. Martin John’s past and present unfold together in a pattern of tenses and voices. Repetition is the key because Martin John is a repeat offender. The circuits he patrols as a security guard, and in his own time around Euston Station, are both his salvation and temptation.

“To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.”

The daily crossword, the weekly visits to Aunty Noanie, the annual Eurovision Song Contest: Martin John’s life is one of ritual. The language, too, takes on the rhythm of ritual, with Martin John’s five refrains listed at the beginning in an index (surely a sign in itself that order will not be observed). These five nonsensical statements accrue meaning throughout the novel, but do not become meaningful: they are little more than hooks on which Martin John hangs his life and rationalises his irrational behaviour. The circuits with which he seeks to control that life simply circumscribe it; as time loops backwards and forwards, language tightens the noose, the echo of recurring phrases emphasising the walls of his prison.

Novels about ‘bad’ people can seduce the reader (think Lolita, think American Psycho), but Martin John lacks any glamour. The looped world of his obsessions makes him small, yet we also come to understand that world. Martin John is so focused on his own gratification he does not consider his actions within the realm of right and wrong; “harm was done”, one of his five refrains, is an empty catechism, not an empathetic realisation. Schofield achieves the perfect balance of engagement without identification: we understand Martin John but do not sympathise.

What, then, is the attraction for the reader? Firstly, the poetry of the prose; not a poetry of beauty but one of power – fierce, incantatory – allowing, secondly, the cracking open of Martin John’s mind, an under-the-stone glimpse, but without forgetting, thirdly, the reverberation of his actions on those around him. Schofield lures the reader, at times, into the narrow tunnel of Martin John’s viewpoint, only to suddenly look up and reveal the outside: mam’s complicity; the treatment of his victims:

“Years ago his mother had come. His mother had come and asked that she – The Girl – not press charges. She, his mother, said The Boy, her son, would be going away and promised he would never bother her again.”

The novel may come from a different time – “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” – the 1980s, but its urgency is never in doubt. The paralysis Martin John creates in the final scene echoes society’s indecision when faced with the problem he represents. Ironically, as much as Martin John remains unchanged, in Martin John we witnessed the novel becoming something new.

Quotations from Anakana Schofield are from an interview in the Irish Times.