Not Telling

Ronan Bennett

  • The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 324 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85619 366 7

Love story and murder mystery, The Blue Afternoon is full of puzzles. First: why ‘blue’ afternoon? It’s not just the afternoon, there are so many spots of blue throughout the novel it becomes a cyan wash. In the first few pages we are told that the sign outside the house designed by K.L. Fisher, architect, is small and blue; in her room there is a ‘blue and yellow Gertrud Arndt rug’; she gets a powerful urge to swim in the ‘overchlorinated blue’ of her building’s pool, where a woman sunbathes ‘in a cobalt two-piece’; and, at the end of the book, we learn that Fischer ‘loved too, once; my blue baby, Coleman’. Blue is there in all its hues: sky blue, baby blue, washed-out blue, cobalt, violet ... we can hardly doubt that something meaningful is intended. But what?

William Boyd’s title is inspired by Wallace Stevens’s enigmatic ‘Landscape with Boat’ (quoted epigraphically):

He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see. He wanted the eye to see
And not be touched by blue ...

... Had he been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green cars in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer’s track
And say, ‘The thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestial pantomime.’

Boyd assembles the poem’s images in the novel’s final passage, and it is here we see most clearly the effect he is reaching for:

The purple livid mass of the thunderclouds seemed to dominate the overarching sky, but still the sun shone on our faces as the charged light thickened and changed colour around us. My finger traced a track through the cold beaded moisture on the sweating bottle; the little steamer had almost reached the quay at Alfama; the sound of traffic and voices rose faintly from the busy streets below us, and I smelt the musky bouquet of the wine as I brought the glass to my lips and drank deep.

  So what makes the difference – here and now – on this terrace on this eloquent blue afternoon, as we sit caught between perpetuities of sun and rain, held in this particular moment? I look over at Salvador Carriscant, who is smiling at me, his old broad face radiant with his tremendous good fortune, and I know the answer.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, Salvador Carriscant had been on the brink of escaping with the woman of his dreams when tragedy intervened. He was arrested for a series of murders he (probably) didn’t commit and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, losing both freedom and love in the process. Yet here he is in old age, sipping yellow wine and looking out at the sea and sky, enjoying an enviable and rare contentment. Though the symbolism is, in the nature of these things, ambiguous, Boyd’s blue seems to be intended to represent the life-force, the doggedness, the irrepressibility of the human spirit. It stands between ‘perpetuities of sun and rain’, and like the blue of the sky it always returns, serene and beautiful, after the storm’s hysteria is spent. Boyd, I would guess, wants to make blue suggestive not simply of its usual melancholy but of deep happiness and fulfilment (it was on ‘a blue afternoon’ that Carriscant and his true love consummated their passion). Happiness can’t exist without sadness, attainment without loss. It’s an interesting if slight conceit, but the question is whether this fairly conventional story can support such symbolic density.

Boyd has made his name working with narrative rather than metaphor, character not symbolism, and he has always been at his best observing the comedy produced by the clash of base instinct with noble intent, whether in the diplomatic service (A Good Man in Africa) or on the battlefield (An Ice-Cream War), in zoology (Brazzaville Beach) or in medicine (as here). This experiment with colour sits awkwardly with the familiar narrative concerns of The Blue Afternoon; it’s an unnecessary and self-conscious writerly affection. Boyd is primarily a storyteller, and has never been shy of letting us know it. In The New Confessions John James Todd speaks confidentially to the reader: ‘Anyway, I digress. Let me tell you something about this enterprise upon which we have both – you and I – embarked. Here is the story of a life. My life ... If on occasion I have used some innocent embellishment it has been only to fill the odd defect of memory.’ And Hope Clearwater in Brazzaville Beach: ‘But I mustn’t digress ... that’s not the way to start. Another problem: how do I begin? How do I tell you what happened to me? ... Which voice do I use?’ In The Blue Afternoon, Boyd dispenses with these arch intimacies but otherwise maintains the storytelling formalities by having Salvador Carriscant recount his story to Kay Fischer, the woman he claims is his long-lost daughter. The promise is the straightforward one: a tall tale told (we hope) well, or rather two tales – Carriscant’s love affair with the beautiful Delphine, the wife of Colonel Jepson Sieverance, and the mysterious serial murders for which Carriscant eventually goes to prison.

As in the best tall tales there is a certain amount of tantalising digression. As John James Todd and Hope Clearwater testify, Boyd is fond of verbal foreplay, though at sixty-odd pages (in a 324-page novel) the preliminaries may seem a little stretched for some, more impulsive, appetites. This, the Los Angeles section of the book (set in 1936), opens: ‘I turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove up Micheltoreno to the site. The day was cloudy and an erratic and nervy wind rattled the leaves of the palmettos that the contractor had planted along the roadside.’ There are seedy piano bars, actresses on the make, and handsome but weak men with empty calfskin wallets. It is, for the most part, efficiently executed pastiche, though were words like ‘tosh’ then part of the argot of the Chandleresque milieu? But, more importantly, what, apart from setting up Carriscant and Kay, has any of this got to do with the main story? The themes the Los Angeles section introduces – Kay’s relationships with her vindictive partner and her feckless husband – fade away once Carriscant’s tale takes over and we are transported to the Manila of 1902. Inherent in this sort of structure is the expectation of a certain kind of resolving circularity: we expect to be brought back to Kay’s world. Boyd, whether intentionally or not, refuses to deliver, so when, at the end of the book, we return briefly to 1936 it is not to join up the untwined threads of Kay’s story. These are left hanging.

It is Carriscant’s story – intriguing and beguiling – that dominates the book. In Manila, during the mopping-up operations conducted by the occupying US forces against the last desperate and dispersed bands of insurrectos, Salvador Carriscant leads a comfortable life far removed from the savagery of the guerrilla war. His marriage to the phlegmatic Annaliese may be sterile, but it is genteelly so, and he has a flourishing career as a surgeon to help compensate for life’s other inevitable inconveniences and disappointments. Things perk up the day Delphine, Colonel Sieverance’s wife, catches his eye. Carriscant is instantly smitten. He pines and he plots, trying to contrive a meeting with the fair-skinned, golden-haired beauty. It is not easy, given the Manila middle-classes’ provincial nosiness and elaborate sense of social probity.

This is territory Boyd crosses in style, and had he stayed there it is tempting to feel the book would have been far better. The absurdity and delight of lust are handled persuasively. The tone varies between mildly comic and mock-serious. When Carriscant is discovered masturbating while spying on Delphine as she practises her archery, the old man does not chide him: ‘It is only human my son. Don’t feel shame.’ This is pure Boyd: tolerant of human weakness when it comes to affairs of the groin. Boyd has served up this menu before, and some may find the attention lavished on Delphine’s pudendal details a little wearying (a preoccupation with pubic triangles, as Boyd-watchers are well aware, is one of the author’s little foibles; we reserve for it the same amused compassion he extends to our imperfections).

Cupid thoughtfully intervenes, striking Delphine in the appendix. Carriscant is called in, probes around ‘down there’, shaves her pubic hair (described in the loving detail we have grown to expect), cuts her open, deals with the offending organ, sews her up and takes advantage of post-operative care to advance his suit. Will they, won’t they get it together? Carriscant and Delphine’s romance teases in the same way that illicit sexual attraction tantalises lovers: an ambiguous remark here, a furtive touch there, it all heightens the ache for consummation. It turns out that Delphine’s marriage is as loveless as Carriscant’s, that she is intrigued by the man who saved her life, and the two adulterers first make love on a blue afternoon. The affair is continued in slightly less furtive circumstances when the Colonel is conveniently posted to Mindanao, where there is trouble with the insurrectos.

The dilemma Carriscant and Delphine face is the one all lovers in their circumstances confront: where does their affair take them? The dilemma is sharpened when Sieverance returns, is promoted and ordered back to the States. Either the lovers must act or give up their grand passion. They decide to flee and begin a new life together in Europe, deceiving the husband with an elaborate and far-fetched plot involving cordite, pregnancy, stored blood, ice, a cannabalised foetus and the corpse of a murder victim. But unhappy fate intervenes. The second strand to the Boyd-Carriscant story is a thriller – a series of bizarre murders which take place as Carriscant’s infatuation with Delphine develops. The naked body of Ephraim Ward, an 18-year-old Kansas militiaman, is the first to be found, half-submerged in a rice field:

There was a peculiar bluish, icy tone to the body’s general pallor ... The fat on the bullocks seemed to shine through the skin like ice-cream wrapped in parchment ... there was a pestilential buzzing of insects and the solitary eye that was above the surface of the water was dark with flies feeding on its jelly.

Pretty grim, and it doesn’t let up:

There was a long inverted L-shape wound carved into the torso, and laced like a football. The long cut extended from the breastbone to the genitalia. The short arm of the wound ran at right angles across the left side of the chest two inches below the nipple. The wound had been effectively and tightly sewn together with string.

Though Boyd’s work often has elements of gore (the mutual chimp slaughter of Brazzaville Beach, the mutual chump slaughter of An Ice-Cream War), it has never occupied quite so central a place as it does in The Blue Afternoon. Gray’s Anatomy (or something similar) has evidently been pressed into service to enhance the anatomical and surgical descriptions, which continue with the discovery of a second body. The corpse

still had trousers and boots but there was no trace of the rest of the uniform. This time cause of death was immediately apparent: a single blow from a bolo delivered to the top of the head, splitting it like a melon. The entire torso was soaked in treacly, dried blood, which had flowed from the head wound and ... from a more torn and unstitched version of the inverted L-shaped wound that had disfigured Ephraim Ward’s corpse. About two feet of intestine, ragged and frayed, had been dragged from the belly, probably by river rats. The right hand and forearm were missing, severed neatly at the elbow.

This body is that of Maximilian Braun, a corporal in Colonel Sieverance’s regiment. Were the two soldiers killed by insurrectos? Were they killed by their own comrades and then mutilated to make it look like the work of the guerrillas? What is the significance of the L-shape? Were the murders committed by that ‘antediluvian sawbones’ Dr Isidro Cruz, Carriscant’s spiteful colleague at the hospital? Or by Dr Pantalcon Quiroga, Carriscant’s anaesthetist and a nephew of an insurrecto leader? Were they killed by Paton Bobby, the American policeman assigned to investigate the murders? Is the murderer Colonel Sieverance – who may or may not have presided over the massacre of an entire village, witnessed by Ward and Braun?

Bobby enlists Carriscant as a forensic expert, but the surgeon himself falls under suspicion when the third body turns up. This time the victim is not a soldier, but a woman, beside whose unmutilated body a scalpel is found, a scalpel possibly originating from Carriscant’s own stores. Is Cruz trying to frame his rival? Is Quiroga? Maybe Carriscant is the killer? What motive does he have, what motive do any of them have? Why have the corpses been mutilated?

By the end of the book I was none the wiser about any of this. Thinking I had missed some vital clue I retraced my steps. But no. While there are plenty of red herrings there are no real leads. Boyd has simply refused to tell. He does not reveal the identity of the murderer, and gives no explanation for why the killings were committed or for the reasons behind the L-shaped wounds.

I was full of doubts, full of conflicting versions and explanations of this strange and complex story I had been told. But at least I knew now there had been a man called Salvador Carriscant and he had been in love with a woman named Delphine Sieverance. That much at least I could confirm, having witnessed it with my own eyes, and perhaps that was what was most significant. As for the rest, I had my theories, my dark thoughts, my suspicions, my version of events as they had unfolded all those years ago in Manila. But what did it matter?

To set up a mystery and then wilfully refuse to explain it is to frustrate and irritate the reader (an irritation heightened by the self-approving reference to ‘this strange and complex story’ – that’s for us to say, not the author). The whole thing looks like it may have been conceived as a knowing, Post-Modernist send-up of the thriller genre, but it reads suspiciously like a novel whose plot and narrative simply fail. Taken with the other unsatisfactory elements – the Los Angeles episode, the rather heavy-handed colour symbolism – The Blue Afternoon gives the impression of an underpowered novel from a writer whose skill at weaving story-lines to a satisfactory and integrated conclusion has previously been widely admired. Boyd’s prose is, as ever, limpid and assured; his set-pieces – Delphine’s operation, the ‘aero-mobilist’ Dr Quiroga’s preparation for and realisation of the first heavier-than-air, machine-powered flight – are successful. But none of this compensates for a book whose promise is not so much unfulfilled as obdurately squandered. Unhappily, a very blue read.