Yum-Yum Pickles

Alex Clark

  • The Hunters: Two Short Novels by Claire Messud
    Picador, 181 pp, £12.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 330 48814 7

The recurring theme of a life’s compression or diminution is reflected in the deceptive miniaturism of the twin stories in The Hunters. Messud labours on her two inches of ivory – and the book can, at times, feel like a labour – to create a work that tests the possibilities of how much can be encoded in how little.

According to her British publishers, The Hunters was not considered for this year’s Orange Prize because it wasn’t ‘a unified work’ – which hardly makes sense because it is a book of startling rigour and extraordinary sense of purpose, far more ‘unified’ than many more conventional novels. When they are read as companion pieces, it is hard to imagine either of these short novels existing without the ballast and symmetry of the other.

Superficially, they would seem to have little in common. ‘A Simple Tale’, the first piece, takes us through an entire life, inside and out, narrated by a politely reticent third person on whom, intuitively, we confer our readerly trust. In ‘The Hunters’, we are in the hands of a wilfully mysterious narrator, who declines to declare name, gender or age, whose temperament is beguiling and mercurial, and who tells us that ‘this is not my story, not a story about me,’ when clearly it can be nothing else. The ‘simple tale’, its trajectory neatly plotted and its narrative promises dutifully fulfilled, is followed by an excessively complicated, near-manic flight of imagination that concludes in mystery and indeterminacy.

‘A Simple Tale’ recalls Flaubert’s ‘Un Coeur simple’, and not only in its title. Both stories have servants as their heroines, characters whose lives are shaped in varying degrees by deprivation and hardship, and who are motivated by a permanent sense of duty and obligation that sits uneasily with their awareness of a force external to the otherwise immutable master-servant relationship. Both end with an ambiguous moment of transformation and a kind of dissolution of self, a breaking of bonds. Messud tells the ‘simple tale’ of Maria Poniatowski, a Ukrainian by birth, whose life in Canada begins only after a series of displacements, incarcerations and escapes. Her native village is first ‘restructured’ as a collective farm under the Soviets and later occupied by the Germans. Maria is transported to a labour camp and then to a barracks in Essen, from where she and her fellow labourers – ‘Let it be clear: they were not prisoners’ – are set to work in a munitions factory, ‘yoked, like oxen, for the glory of the Reich’.

She and a friend escape during a devastating Allied bombing raid, and Messud describes their flight in terms of an interruption in time. ‘Nothing would ever compare to that terror: Maria never spoke of it, but thought of it, to herself, as the endless suspended moment that she lived in death.’ The period following the raid – during which Maria finds sanctuary on a farm and is liberated by Allied forces, only to find herself in another camp – is ‘a dreamscape’. Her past now consists of ‘figments’: ‘figments’ not merely of a past that has been shattered, requiring reconstruction, but of a past that may, even to its subject, be imaginary.

The novel begins with a highly specific moment: ‘Maria Poniatowski let herself into Mrs Ellington’s apartment at 7.55 a.m. precisely (she was always five minutes early; she timed her walk that way), on the third Tuesday of August in 1993.’ Maria finds blood on the apartment wall, but before she can investigate further, Messud whisks us back to Gulyaypole, to the camps, and then to Canada, where Maria and her husband begin a new life, have a son, settle in Toronto and Maria begins work as a maid. ‘A Simple Tale’ is concerned with getting us back to the bloodstained apartment. Maria’s life appears to have moved on, but Messud reveals that it is snagged on the barbs of the past.

Maria had had a companion in the labour camp, Olga, who is depicted in vaguely sexual images: her ‘firm fair hand’; ‘the bristling tickle of her blond braid against Maria’s cheek’. The women became separated, but the narrator offers a fleeting glimpse of an alternative future:

If Maria had not met Lev, had not given birth to Radek; if indeed, she had rediscovered Olga and her blond braids, then she might have made her way home to Gulyaypole: but none of her fellows in the camp brought any word of sisters or cousins or friends, and it seemed that Gulyaypole had perhaps been obliterated, had simply ceased to exist. Like Lot’s wife, Maria was at moments tempted to turn back, to look for her past; but she knew the price, with a husband and a son to care for, to be too high.

Was this the pivotal moment? Instead of returning home, Maria became a ‘cipher bearing canapés’, a hired hand whose employers ‘required her silence about her previous life’. She cleans other people’s homes and sheathes her own furniture in plastic, to keep off the dirt and dust. Her unswerving rhythms and routines are an attempt to protect her from the drift of life.

But Messud sets the slow passage of the decades against the immediacy of the moment, subtly developing the novel’s themes of inconstancy and rupture, in particular through Maria’s relationship with Mrs Ellington. Two unexpected reversals occur, one after the other. First, Maria experiences a horrible flowering of consciousness on an unprecedented holiday with her son’s family. She has long dismissed introspection as a luxury, but is all at once overtaken by a feeling of ‘hideous superfluity’:

She was to this scene like the flag on the back of the boat, or like the occasional burst of an engine in the distance: a tiny, rootless fact, an irrelevance. She followed the line of trees at the horizon and the pale cumulus stretch above, felt the gentle chuck-sucking of the water at the boat’s underside, and for the first time she could recall, she asked herself: ‘How did I get here? What am I doing here? Why is this so?’

Her conviction that ‘only she would mourn herself’ is reinforced, on her return, by her sudden ejection from Mrs Ellington’s house. Maria’s employer succumbs to blindness and irascibility in old age, and one day there is an ‘explosion’: ‘Mrs Ellington, minute, imperious and unhinged, berated and dismissed Maria in the living room.’ She has had enough of Maria’s intransigence, her intrusive fussiness, her incessant talking, and most of all the burden of providing her with sandwiches on the days she came to work. ‘White bread, crusts trimmed, Bick’s yum-yum pickles always in a cut-glass dish between them at the table’: these lunches had become a token of order and plenitude for Maria, a symbol of grace and permanence.

For Mrs Ellington, whom Maria ‘had held to be the stable and benevolent repository of as much of her life as anyone’, the ending brings the loss of independence. Towards Maria, however, Messud shows an unforeseen mercy. No longer sure that ‘she was at all, that she breathed and signified still’, Maria nonetheless achieves an utterly unexpected kind of sensual freedom: she starts to enjoy dancing, holidays, pictures. She is rejuvenated, just as her son’s marriage falters and Mrs Ellington’s health worsens. Messud grants her a new, if late and qualified, beginning.

Maria is never allowed the gift of unfettered speech; she must always speak in a makeshift, alien language. The narrator of ‘The Hunters’, on the other hand, is all voice, and it’s a voice that is so prolix, finicky and pedantic, caught between its expository impulses and its facility for concealment, as to be off-putting and at times almost hateful. From the uninflected historical detail of ‘A Simple Tale’, we move to a world made available only through its narrator, of whom we are immediately suspicious. Why do we not know his or her age, name or gender? What is the purpose of this convoluted tale with its manufactured ambiguities and lacunae, its withheld information and self-satisfied ironies? One answer may be that the story enacts its own unpicking; it feeds on itself, engineers its own mysteries and proposes their provisional solution. Reliant at one level on suspense, it is also always engaged in a process of demystification, an ambivalent attempt both to ratify and undermine itself.

The narrator, an academic visiting London for a summer’s research into the shift from the 18th-century to the Romantic conception of death, has wilfully chosen, perhaps in response to a broken love affair, to become marginalised. He (or she) rents a flat in run-down, chaotic Kilburn, which seems out of character, and pulls up the drawbridge. There are forays to Marks and Spencer – ‘ah, the choux buns, two to a box!’ – and to the library, and there’s a curious fascination with the puppet-like figures in neighbouring flats, but this is also an eremitic retreat from the world, for fear that thresholds might be breached.

The narrator chooses the flat for its airy rooms and large kitchen table, with its ‘suggestion of society around it’; he or she wants ‘a sign that life continued, even if it had nothing to do with me’, but revels in solitude and emotional blankness. Until, that is, an unwanted visitor appears. Ridley Wandor, the downstairs neighbour, is ‘ugly . . . indistinctly hulking in her lurid, swishing leisure gear’, of indeterminate age and so ungainly as to be sexless. For the narrator, Ridley is at times barely human, ‘pig-eyed and all but lipless’, ‘doughy and listless’, a figure so repulsive that even her ‘pearly shell-pink’ nails are ‘offensive and grotesque’.

This ‘oblique suet of a woman’ is the narrator’s nightmare, almost a nemesis – although to the reader, and to an academic who drops by one evening, she seems to be little more than an inconvenient neighbour. Ridley’s cack-handed attempts at friendship, her halting confidences – which include an admission that the elderly people she looks after are dying at an alarming rate – are painful for the narrator, whose response is punitive: ‘all I ever wished is that she would not be.’ This desire for Ridley to disappear is not, it seems, unlike Ridley’s own feelings towards the people in her care. But it is never clear whether the narrator’s judgment is to be trusted. The primary drama of ‘The Hunters’ – the name Ridley gives her lop-eared pet rabbits – is the narrator’s recovery from a depression that ‘made death glow like home’. Ridley Wandor is the sacrificial victim, the offering laid at the altar of psychic wellbeing. As Ridley’s life becomes more impenetrable, the narrator must invent provisional scenarios. Is Ridley a murderer? Does her unseen mother really exist, and if she does, is she jailor or captive? Could the narrator’s repulsion be the other side of a deep fascination, a fatal obsession with creating stories and imagining endings? The real triumph of the story, its sly cleverness and the true source of its suspense, is the narrator’s reluctant acknowledgment that he or she is firmly implicated in climbing out of a deep hole on Ridley’s shell-suited back.

‘The Hunters’ is an extraordinary experiment, at once funny and appalling, both arch and sincere. It strikes the odd wrong note: old ladies in Kilburn don’t say ‘they figured she didn’t take the train’ and even the most transatlantically-minded of estate agents rarely refer to distances ‘a few blocks’ away. For the most part, however, Messud puts her skilful technique to dazzling emotional effect. Ridley comes across as a casualty and a fall guy, a character who is defined by her dispensability. The narrator, meanwhile, safely repatriated and re-partnered, lives a life of ‘benison and balm’.