Every year on the International Booker long list there is usually one book which leaves me cold. In 2018 it was Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest; in 2019, Alia Trabucco Zeran’s The Remainder; and in 2020… well, let’s just say, the judges liked it a lot more than I did. This year I find myself having the same troubled relationship with Andrzej Tichy’s Wretchedness, translated by Nichola Smalley. The premise of the novel is simple: its narrator, a cello player, is prompted, when he encounters a junkie asking for spare change, to think back to his years as a child living in poverty, and as a young adult surviving any way he could. As these memories resurface, we see his struggle to accept his own escape as he remembers those he left behind.

But firstly, of course, the reader must struggle to accept this premise, and, unfortunately, just because something is possible, does not automatically mean it feels authentic. Escape from poverty via art is a well-worn path in fiction – and often autobiographical – but the cello seems an unlikely life raft for the narrator to cling to amid the wreckage of his youth. Perhaps Tichy, understandably, doesn’t want his main character to be a writer, but – no disrespect to authors – playing a cello requires more expensive equipment, more substantial training, and more extensive practise. Our narrator, however, seems able to perform to a professional standard – he doesn’t simply play the cello; he is a cellist – despite little sense of how he has reached this point in the narrative, just the smallest hint of an interest in music at a young age:

“I hide in a corner of the youth club and listen to this secret music, my secret life, my true life.”

Wretchedness is stylistically interesting, with Tichy intent of juxtaposing present day ruminations on abstract musical concepts (“Just as I was unsuccessfully trying to remember the name of an Italian philosopher who’d written a long an exceptionally deep and incisive essay on Scelsi’s work and importance…”) with the narrator’s memories of his youth, written in a more informal, and less punctuated, prose – a contrast that accelerates as the novel progresses suggesting that the memories become overwhelming. Each chapter is one paragraph, but each chapter is also longer than the last, and with fewer of the pauses created by sentences. Tichy is scathing about the poverty which greets immigrants in Sweden, for example the estate on which they live:

“My dad said to me now we’ve come to PARADISE, but in the paper they wrote it was a HUMAN RUBBISH DUMP.”

Tichy describes the way in which the narrator is haunted by his past viscerally, frequently referring to it as a taste in his mouth:

“I’d rather give it a miss, be someone else, have a different mouth without bloody pigs in, without that taste…”

And later:

“I still have that taste in my mouth, of dust, coffee, fags, a nagging boss, the taste of sweaty reused face masks, the taste of work, the taste of the same all the time, again and again, back and forth, round and round, that’s what I have in my mouth…”

These extracts also give a taste of Tichy’s use of repetition – which he uses repeatedly – to diminishing returns. Comparison have been made to Thomas Bernhard (always the go-to reference for writers who eschew the full stop), but Bernhard’s writing burns with a different rage, and is funnier. The same might be said of another touchstone for tales of drug addicted youth, Trainspotting: it too is funnier, and also sadder. (In comparison, Tichy’s occasional profanity, or attempt to shock – “failed abortions,” for example, even “well-fucked anus” – feels tame). Language is perhaps an issue here, as Welsh had a powerful vernacular to write in, whereas here we are left wondering how to react to “brah” and “you get me” in the English translation.

Tichy’s style is not without some success, and the narrator’s complex feelings – “not some kind of straight forward survivor guilt” – is both credible and, at times, compelling. But as the novel becomes more immersed in his past it also becomes, frankly, dull. His present life is barely sketched – there is no sense of tension between past and present – and the other characters, including pivotal characters such as Soot who he admits to ‘cutting off’ – have very little individuality. This dullness may be intentional – poverty is dull – but, by the halfway point, I had lost interest. It’s true that Tichy does something quite clever at the end, if a little ambiguous (though not as baffling as the wax leaf plant he mentions in every chapter). Many others have felt much more positive about this novel – see, for example, Tony’s review – but I was pleased to see that the novel had not made it to the shortlist.

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6 Responses to “Wretchedness”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Um. Can’t say I feel particularly drawn to this Grant – and a lot of suspension of disbelief seems to be needed…

  2. Tony Says:

    Yes, I enjoyed this a lot more than you. I accept that the cello escape route is slightly less realistic than writing, but coming from a background not a million miles away from this, I really bought into the whole ‘there but for the grace of God’ aspect of the book – and I liked the writing 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, the cello playing is unlikely but not impossible but I felt the writer didn’t even try to earn it. But I think we mostly disagree on the language which I found a bit boring. I’ll be interested to see what the shadow jurors make of it.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was more with Tony than you on this one. I found it fascinating and while I take your point on the cello the idea that one unlikely thing took him out of his background worked for me. After all, it takes something unlikely. It was the writing though which sold it for me.I haven’t actually read Bernhard so wasn’t making that comparison, but there was a sustained guilty fury that I thought worked well.

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