What is it really about, and why was it written like this? The questions are never unreasonable when confronted with works that suggest the possibility of other meanings present beneath the surface level of realism, and when a reader has to decide whether suggested profundities really exist or in fact resemble what Eliot in old age called his notes to The Waste Land, an exhibition of bogus scholarship.
The questions must be asked about Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World, which has as many levels as a layer cake. On the surface this is about Cotta, a friend and admirer of the banished Roman poet Ovid, who makes a pilgrimage to the town of Tomi in an unsuccessful search for the poet who wrote the Metamorphoses. Go one layer down and this is a tale about metamorphoses, a prose exemplification of fables related to Ovid’s. Lycaon the rope-maker turns into a wolf, Battus the epileptic son of Fama the grocer into stone because of his total absorption in ‘the world’s objects’, like bits of coloured glass or buttons made magical as images in the episcope (for which read, more or less, magic lantern). The names are familiar from Ovid, the people are different. Dig down a further layer, and you find a comparison between the order and symmetry of Rome and the barbaric freedom and strangeness of Tomi. Many, we are told, have fled from control by the apparatus of power to find a life free of supervision, and they are labelled ‘fugitives of the state’. In this context the book might be said to take a satirical look at dictatorship. ‘To his enemies the poet was a petrified symbol of the justice of Roman law,’ a man who now ‘existed in limbo between life and death’. And that is not by any means the last of the metaphorical, symbolic, satirical or magical possibilities hinted at through Cotta’s existence in the rusting iron town of Tomi, the metamorphoses affecting its inhabitants, and the varieties of weather that affect it. There is a two-year winter, weeks of rain that keeps people captive in houses and caves, and heat that burns everything except cactus and thistles, and encourages snakes and gigantic spiders.
The whole confection is a muddled, grotesque piece of Germanic romanticism. John Woods’s beautifully lucid translation often emphasises the book’s mock profundity by its very clarity. At the heart of it is the contrast between Ovid’s and Ransmayr’s metamorphoses, pointed up by a 25-page ‘Ovidian Repertory’ of comparisons which makes clear Ransmayr’s Teutonic grotesquerie and love of the horrific. Ovid’s Tereus was King of Thrace, Ransmayr’s Tereus is the town’s butcher who smashes the skulls of bulls with his axe and roasts the giant spiders, which emit a ‘dark, viscous secretion’ from their bellies. Echo no longer suffers grief at her rejection by Narcissus but suffers from a disease that causes her skin to ‘crack, break and scale, falling like snow from the wretched woman’s body.’ Dis, god of the underworld, becomes the gravedigger Thies.
Ovid’s myths are timeless, but these later ones have many contemporary touches. Tomi, the town of iron ‘in the middle of nowhere’, the place of brutish pre-civilised people, contains electric generators and lorries, and the great occasions for the inhabitants are the cinema shows projected by the dwarf Cyparis on the slaughterhouse wall. The people of the town know about trick photography, we are told Arachne has been waiting eight months for a parcel of magazines from Milan, there are references to ‘a bouquet of microphones’, Thies gets a disability pension. The incongruities are similar in kind to performances of Shakespeare that make Troilus a yuppie investment broker or offer a version of Othello in Victorian dress. It would be wrong to think them symbolic, or otherwise meaningful. Ransmayr, like some Shakespearean producers, is just having fun.
The most interesting aspect of the book, the contrast between ‘Rome’s reason and the Black Sea’s incomprehensible realities’, is only occasionally glanced at, never elaborated. The realities of Tomi remain incomprehensible, and indeed no attempt is made to elucidate them. In short, the subtleties some critics have discovered are the product of their own imaginations. Here what you see is all you get.
Christoph Ransmayr has been blessed with a sympathetic translator, Josef Skvorecky cursed with an inadequate one whose name, perhaps by merciful intention, has been left off the title page. Skvorecky’s Lieutenant Boruvka is something like a Czech counterpart of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Swedish Inspector Beck, a lonely melancholy figure struggling to contain the vices of individuals in what both see (Boruvka with much more reason) as a corrupt society. Skvorecky’s prose may be as terse as the translation makes it seem, but must surely be more lively and less repetitious. Boruvka is often overcome by ‘deep sadness’ and frequently gives ‘long sad looks’, but sad also are flowers in a vase, an abandoned shoe, and other things. A character experiences ‘a state known as “blackout” ’, an excited Boruvka says, ‘This is really quite interesting indeed,’ and many pages are scarred by similar infelicities.
It says much that the detective still comes through as an innocent figure of integrity, genuinely tormented by conscience. Skvorecky, like Borges, is fascinated by the classical English mystery puzzle, and in the early Sins for Father Knox broke all the commandments of Knox’s ‘Detective Story Decalogue’ (‘No accident must ever help the detective ... No Chinaman must figure in the story,’ etcetera). The present set of five tales abandons the convolutions of academic detection to show Boruvka involved in the events of a decade that includes the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. In ‘Miss Peskova regrets’ a murder is written off as suicide because of an important official’s involvement, and ‘Strange Archaeology’ describes flatly, with telling avoidance of comment, the room a woman clerk in the State Savings Bank shares with her mother:
Against one wall stood two narrow couches made of old packing-crates. They were painted red and doubled as beds at night. The room itself was narrow with a window at one end that looked out on a litter-strewn courtyard with open-air walkways running around its perimeter ... The room also contained a modest bookshelf constructed from orange crates ... There was a man’s shaving-mirror on a small table between the couches. Since the girl’s mother slept on the second couch, and her ten-year-old brother, whose bed was in the kitchen, was the only man in the household, the mirror obviously served as a vanity table. It made you seem bigger when you looked into it.
The stories mostly show Boruvka reluctantly giving way to bureaucratic pressure, conforming in fact though not in spirit. He does not respond when at the end of a case anti-semitic Sergeant Pudil shouts: ‘What a bloody mess! They made a real pigsty out of the country in nine months, those filthy Dubcekists.’ In the final story, ‘Pirates’, however, Boruvka holds up Pudil at gunpoint while a girl is smuggled out of the country by plane to join her family. For this he gets 15 years, so that he’s certainly out by now. And reinstated, perhaps even Major Boruvka? I hope so.
The Dwarves of Death opens spectacularly with William the undersized narrator witnessing the bashing to death of a young jazz player who proposes to cheat some drug dealers, the bashers appearing to be two dwarves. We then move back in time to William’s lacklustre love affair with Madeline, which never gets further than kisses, his attempts to use his talents as a jazz pianist with a better group than the Alaska Factory, his life in a flat on a South London estate (the nearest Tube, rather oddly, is Tower Hill), his work in a record shop, and his hatred for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. With an unerring gift for making the worst of things he takes Madeline to Phantom of the Opera, queuing for five and a half hours only to see the last tickets go to those just ahead of him, then buying two tickets from an agency for £90, and finally telling Madeline how bad the show was when she says she enjoyed it.
In spite of having chips on both shoulders, William is an engaging figure, and the dead-pan narration of his mishaps, failures, and hopeless pursuit of Madeline is often very funny. Especially good is his relationship with his flatmate Tina, who works night shifts so that they communicate only by means of notes about dirty crockery, lack of washing-up liquid and damp patches on the bathroom walls. (Tina explains that she and her taxi-driver lover Pedro had a bath together and he got excited.) Crisp and credible dialogue makes not very eventful pages slip by, and although there’s a bit of a strain at the end as the plot’s various strings are tied to accommodate the dwarves, the drugs, and even Pedro (Madeline has settled for a full-sized lover named Piers), this is a lively and likeable novel.
In Last Loves what must have seemed like a good idea goes wrong. George and Bernard, both now sixtyish, both fighting in Malaya during the emergency in the Forties, revisit those glimpses of the moon by courtesy of Bernard’s wife Jenny, who gives him the trip as a birthday present, and pays for George as well. George is a recently retired teacher parted from his wife, Bernard an ‘international bookdealer, salesman manager of the publishing world’, as Sillitoe not very intelligibly puts it. Jenny is his second wife, and he is always on the look-out for what he would call a nice little piece.
All sorts of ironic possibilities seem open, but what happens is that both Bernard and George revert to their youthful hell-raising selves. ‘We were young and crazy, now we’re old and crazy.’ Bernard smashes up a boat’s urinal on a trip round the harbour, breaking away the over-sanded cement holding enamel to the wall so that ‘the whole series of separate pissers turned into a heap of rubble.’ George makes a pedicab driver get down and takes over himself, shouting genial abuse at the driver even while realising that ‘the poor bastard’s life was a machine to beat the blood out of his heart when chance gave him the privilege of a fare.’ Both drink lots of beer, exclaim about the cheapness and excellence of the food, behave like ancient lager louts. Neither gives any indication of the trace elements of culture we might expect a retired teacher and an ‘international bookdealer’ to possess. In the last quarter of the book there are shifts of feeling and action it would be wrong to give away, but they come too late to save a novel lost in the unrelenting facetious vulgarity of its two principal characters.