Casualty Reports

Robert Taubman

  • The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
    Gollancz, 240 pp, £6.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 575 02889 0
  • Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
    Cape, 220 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01851 5
  • The Last Crime by John Domatilla
    Heinemann, 155 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 434 20090 5

Anna G. presents herself to Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1919 suffering from severe breast and ovary pains, diagnosed as hysterical in origin. We are to suppose that her case not only helped Freud with Beyond the Pleasure Principle and his theory of the death instinct, but that he intended his paper on the case, along with the patient’s pornographic writings, to be published in honour of the Goethe centenary in 1932. There are improbable moments in D.M. Thomas’s novel, but on the whole it shows tact and respect towards Freud. And The White Hotel isn’t only a case-history. Its heroine, Lisa Erdman, is more than the ‘Anna G.’ of Freud’s paper: she is also a representative child of her time, who lives on, ‘cured of everything but life’, resumes her musical career and dies in the massacre at Babi Yar in 1941. It is a short and comprehensive novel, and ingenious in suggesting connections between its different narrative levels – psychoanalytical, historical and moral.

Anna G.’s sexual fantasies centre on the events of a lake-side holiday at Bad Gastein. Anna herself attributes to the white hotel and its polymorphous satisfactions a certain moral value: ‘the spirit of the white hotel was against selfishness.’ In Freud’s more clinical terms, what is expressed is ‘her longing to return to the haven of security, the original white hotel – we have all stayed there – the mother’s womb.’ But the fantasia of Anna’s poem and journal contains almost as much horror as pleasure – hallucinations of flood, fire, avalanche, bodies falling from a cable car: ‘Their skirts blown up around their waists by the motion of the air, the women fell more slowly than the men ... and last of all, after what seemed an eternity, a hail of skis, glinting in the sunlight, tumbled into the pines and the lake.’ The horror, however, is remote, with the distancing effect of fantasy, just as the sex is not real and erotic but has the unconvincing look of pornography. The analysis that follows sounds an authentic note: ‘No doubt fate would find it easier than I do to relieve you of your illness. But much will be gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.’ At the same time, it provides the reader with an absorbing Chinese box narrative of hidden memories, reversals of meaning and deceptions uncovered. When it’s over Lisa can put Anna G. behind her: analysis has succeeded at least in reconciling her to her own and her mother’s sexuality. But it hasn’t made her a more interesting person. A letter giving happy family news from Kiev, where she has married and settled down, contrasts with the visionary power of her Bad Gastein journal. But by now the novel has entered a new phase, and Lisa’s banality merges into her role as a victim of history. It’s as an almost anonymous figure – uncertain even if she’s a Jew, because of what her analysis has brought to light about her parentage – that she perishes in the massacre of the Jews at Babi Yar.

Anna G.’s visionary writings have a double meaning, in more than a Freudian sense. They aren’t only clues to the unconscious mind: they contain precognitions. The fire, the flood and the fall observed at the white hotel turn out to have their meaning at Babi Yar as well as in the depths of Lisa’s childhood repressions. The novel is held together by these symbols, which point both inwards and outwards for Lisa, and forwards and back in time. And this use of symbols is more than a structural device: a fine imaginative achievement. I’m not sure that Lisa/Anna, as a character, holds together so well – a divided self whom we never know intimately; a casualty at first of her psyche and then of history. But if we don’t know her well enough, she has her own moment of triumph when she knows herself; and what this means to her, on a visit to her old home in Odessa, is a sense of continuity: ‘For as she looked back through the clear space to her childhood, there was no blank wall, only an endless extent, like an avenue, in which she was still herself, Lisa. She was still there, even at the beginning of all things. And when she looked in the opposite direction, towards the unknown future, death, the endless extent beyond death, she was still there.’

The idea of continuity is carried further in the last chapter, which looks like an alternative ending with Lisa after all safe in Israel, but turns out to be set in an after-life where the characters reassemble, including Sigmund Freud himself. It’s a more sentimental fantasy than that of the white hotel at the beginning, and too insubstantial for Lisa’s final conviction – ‘we were made to be happy and to enjoy life’ – to carry much weight. All through the novel there’s a good deal about happiness or its absence, but no convincing picture of it. Can it be intended by what the white hotel represents, the pornographic fantasies and womb-like satisfactions, and are these as ‘unselfish’ as Anna’s journal suggests? I don’t think that any positive values in the novel ever emerge from the realm of fantasy. Evil, on the other hand, is very vividly present, and this is where its moral interest really lies. If the evil inside Lisa, the evil in the psyche, is one she learns to cope with, she has no such power over the evil that destroys her at Babi Yar. Both are representative but barely understood evils of our time, and the hallucinations at the white hotel, which seem at first to have no meaning, turn out to be ways of seeing them both more clearly.

Looking into the future beyond a nuclear holocaust commonly leads to other assumptions about evil. In Riddley Walker evil is far more reductive, widespread and less specialised than in its 20th-century forms, as if all the life that has crept back on earth after ‘the white shadderd stood up over everything’ has become what it is simply as a result of that one almost-final event. This can only be represented, however, in terms of the collapse of the world we actually know: as in the hideously fractured English of the 12-year-old narrator, the hangings and blindings in a benighted part of Kent (recalling King Lear), the ambiguous – both powerful and powerless – government officials, or merely the behaviour of dogs. Russell Hoban’s forecast of the future thus depends on the past, and his characters are aware of us. The men of How Fents make their living from digging our iron engines out of the mud, and Riddley Walker laments, without irony, among the ruins of what seems to have been Folkestone power-station: ‘O what we ben! And what we come to!’ It looks as though mankind is condemned, in this novel, to a sort of eternal recurrence, and the story leads up to the re-invention of gun-powder.

In this phase of history, however – 2,000 years ahead – what we have is a pretty complete reversion to the primitive: no towns, only a muddy countryside and some basic farming. On his 12th birthday Riddley comes of age and kills a wild boar: ‘He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, “Your tern now my tern later.” ’ And along with the primitive come its corresponding, Rousseauesque virtues, making this in the end not at all a sad but a buoyant, even joyful book. One can’t but see Riddley as a Mark Twainish young frontier hero, honest, determined and thoughtful (he specialises in riddles). Folk wisdom is being coined in ‘your tern now my tern later’ or ‘sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit,’ and experience is interpreted symbolically, as when the boar-killing on his birthday is read off as ‘the far come close took by the littl come big.’ And like Lisa in The White Hotel, Riddley pursues an obscure ideal of oneness, which he thinks of as ‘that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome’, though his problem is that ‘you try to take holt of the 1 ness and it comes in 2 in your hans.’ Along with the detritus of present civilisation there are traces of still older things. Roaming the country, ‘walking out my happenings’, Riddley is involved with the legend of St Eustace, and the Green Man with vines growing out of his mouth, and a version of a Punch and Judy show. He struggles to master the meaning of these things. They are, of course, just about as remote and mythical to us – so that our own past is evoked as much as Riddley Walker’s. The lure of the primitive is the strongest force in the book, and more persuasive than its warning about the future. But out of very disparate material it makes a story with the imaginative density of myth.

The Last Crime has no such imaginative use for either past or future, but simply employs a 21st-century setting to express dislike and distrust of the present. In this novel only Dayton, Ohio has ceased to exist (computer error) and the rest of the world still looks something like itself – but worse. But our present tendencies don’t seem to me to be anywhere finely judged. Who can tell what side this voice is supposed to be on: ‘Then media pollution, the blast against mind, the trivialising of crisis, the sneer against solemnity and the profound. The canard of class theories to create divisions, the redistribution of what slowly turned out to be mental and material poverty. And drugs, always self-inflicted ...’? So with the violence in the book: it’s hard to distinguish the merely indiscriminate from the considered and intentional. There’s a sort of blind, revolutionary intention behind a plan to destroy the government’s Univac memory-banks in London. In a quiet moment, the hero demonstrates how a computer can be subverted painlessly by baffling it with ‘lateral thinking’: this is jokey but tedious – not a great way to score off a computer, and anyway irrelevant to the plot.

What the plot has, however, is a moral twist: at the last moment the button of the nuclear rocket is not pressed, because innocent shift-workers have got in the way. An argument develops around this point – ‘the deliberate slaughter of innocents’, ‘the justifiable logic of brutalist overkill’ – but as a moral idea it looks lonely in the vacuum created by the book. Style is the real cause of this emptiness. There are many styles, in fact, each with a bravura effect: ‘the only flash flag of hard flesh flown, his rude male appurtenance’; nonsense Haikus; a punk rock account of Judas Iscariot – ‘the first real Romeo of social rhetoric, the numero uno of all history’s revolutionaries, the quantum quintessence ...’ If they make an effect, these stylistic displays, it’s usually at the expense of making any sense. The barely articulate Riddley Walker has more to say.