Territorial Rights

The uncovering of secrets is a common feature of Muriel Spark’s novels. In her first novel, The Comforters, for example, Laurence discovers his grandmother is involved in a diamond smuggling ring. And where there are secrets, blackmail inevitably follows – as we see in her second novel, Robinson, when Tom insinuates Robinson “isn’t a man for the ladies.” The threat of blackmail continues to feature in many of the novels that follow, and is particularly prevalent in her 1979 novel Territorial Rights, where almost every character seems to have something to hide.

The novel takes place among the canals of Venice, where the coincidental arrival of a series of inter-connected foreigners leads to a complex ravelling and unravelling of their lives. First to arrive is art student Robert Leaver who has left his older lover Mark Curran (“He preferred to be called ‘Curran’ rather than by his Christian name, for reasons which, when he gave them, were difficult to puzzle out…”) in pursuit of Lina Pancev, a Bulgarian artist who is searching for the grave of her murdered father. He is soon followed by Curran, and, more unexpectedly, by his father, Arnold, who is holidaying with his “former colleague” (and lover), Mary Tiller. Into this already volatile mix will later appear the former matron of the school where Arnold was Headmaster, Grace Gregory, with her former pupil (and lover), Leo, ostensibly keeping an eye on Arnold on behalf of his wife, Anthea.

The secret at the heart of the novel is the death of Lina’s father, Victor, whom Curran knew:

“He was suspected of being part of a plot to poison King Boris, who in fact died of poisoning. Pancev got away but the Bulgarian royalists caught up with him and killed him in 1945.”

In fact, Curran knows more about his death than he tells Robert, including his final resting place – or places, as the corpse was cut in two – which just happens to be the garden of the Pensione Sofia where Robert is staying. The two elderly owners of the Pensione, Eufemia and Katerina, are also implicated, as is Violet de Winter, an old friend of Curran’s and the “chief agent for Global-Equip Security Services Ltd for northern Italy and adjacent territories”, the detective agency hired by Anthea to track down her husband (and amusingly reduced to the acronym GESS). Curran, who was a German agent at the time, is keen that the story of Victor’s death – and his graves – is left alone, but, when Robert disappears, he is threatened with exposure by his ‘kidnappers’. (Ironically the other secrets in the novel – Arnold’s affair, Robert’s homosexuality – are known by all).

Anyone who has been watching the recent BBC series Trust, about the kidnap of John Paul Getty III in Italy – the kidnap was originally his idea – will recognise something of this in Robert’s disappearance. Here it is played more lightly, to the point of farce when Lina returns to Curran a briefcase full of money which he has left for the kidnappers, thinking he has forgotten it. The kidnap is only one example of the novel’s topicality: Middle Eastern terrorism makes an appearance in its denouement, and Lina’s defection from the Soviet Bloc also seems symptomatic of the decade, although in Spark’s version of this story she frequently askes herself, “What have we defected for?” and is threatened with expulsion by Bulgarian expatriate group who support her financially. When her cousin, Serge, appears to take her home, his main criticism is of her art, a picture of men fishing:

“They look too prosperous and contented… In the west, the proletariat are not like that. You are painting propaganda.”

In fact, her painting seems simply banal, and not the only example of would-be art and artists in the novel. Curran, too, claims to be an artist, and Spark intersperses Anthea’s appearances with excerpts from the kitchen sink fiction she reads before bed.

This emphasis on modernity seems appropriate in a novel which depicts the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Curran is a man of wealth and influence; Robert says of him:

“Curran would believe he was God if he believed in God. All his life Curran has commanded the morning and caused the dayspring to know its place.”

Curran himself claims, “I never feel guilty. Even when I know I should.” It is protégé, Robert, however, who gets the better of him, representing a new generation which is, if anything, even less moral. Robert’s ‘kidnap’ is described as “the beginning of Robert’s happy days, the fine fruition of his youth,” and it is him we think of when Grace tells Anthea:

“You’re mistaken if you think wrong-doers are always unhappy… The really professional evil-doers love it.”

Territorial Rights is one of Spark’s funniest novels: the satire is less biting and the authorial judgement more benevolent. Spark handles her extensive cast of characters with her usual skill, and even the darkest comedy (as when Robert encourages Lina to dance unwittingly on her father’s grave) has a light touch. If it is not one of Spark’s best novels, it is one of her most enjoyable.

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4 Responses to “Territorial Rights”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, what larks – I do like the sound of this! One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about this year-long celebration of Spark has been the opportunity to learn more about her lesser-known novels, the 1970s works in particular. Was she living in Italy by this point? I’m thinking about her use of Venice as the setting here.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Lovely review, Grant. I really wish I’d managed to read more of Spark this year. She seems never to have lost her touch!

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