absurd

THE TENANT BY ROLAND TOPOR

Some years ago I moved to the midlands in order to start a new job. I knew no one in the area so arranged to live in a shared house, with three other guys, hoping this would mean I didn’t become too isolated. In the early stages all was fine, presumably because the other tenants were on their best behaviour, but soon strange things began to happen. Empty crisp packets, for example, started to appear in the fridge. I don’t know if you have ever found an empty crisp packet in the fridge, but it is, let’s say, a bit of a puzzler. There are, of course, a number of questions that may occur to you when confronted with such a thing, but I think the most important is ‘what kind of monster or madman eats crisps, then decides that the best place for the empty packet is…the fridge?’

I managed to endure this situation  – which was not limited to empty crisp packets, but included large puddles of water on the kitchen floor, loud noises in the middle of the night and disappearing sandwiches – for only a few months before I came to the realisation that living in close proximity, and sharing a living space, with one’s fellow man is not advisable, that there is something oppressive, even eerie, about having to rub along with others in a confined space. And this is something that Trelkovsky, the central character in Roland Topor’s 1964 French novel The Tenant, also learns, although his circumstances are slightly different.

“He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws.”

According to a number of reviews I have encountered Trelkovsky is essentially a void, a man lacking in personality. I understand where those sorts of claims are coming from, but they aren’t entirely accurate. He is, we are told, honest and polite and quiet, and as such one might legitimately say that he isn’t particularly interesting. But that isn’t the same as saying that he has no personality at all, of course. Moreover, there are a number of instances where he displays courage, or certainly spunk. For example, when he attempts to rent a flat from Monsieur Zy he haggles tenaciously over the price. He also beds, and abandons, Stella without the slightest compunction. Yet the most telling incident is when he refuses to sign a petition to have another tenant removed from the building, because, he says, he doesn’t know her, and does not have a problem with her himself. In this way, Trelkovsky is something of an enigma, unassuming and quiet, yet fiercely principled and confident, honest and good but a bit of a dick, etc.

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[Still from the film of the same name, directed by, and starring, Roman Polanski]

I wrote in my introduction that Trelkovsky’s oppression comes in circumstances slightly different to mine, and that is because he lives not with a number of people in one house, but, rather, shares an apartment block with them. One would think, or hope, that having an apartment to oneself would guarantee some level of safety, a degree of isolation from others. Isn’t this why we value our homes so much? However, what he finds is that, yes, he can lock his door, but he cannot, in a sense, keep other people away, he cannot be free of them entirely. There are a number of amusing scenes, and episodes, that highlight this, but my favourite involves the tenant going to absurd lengths, including wearing slippers at all times, to avoid making noise, because even the slightest rouses his neighbours and sets them knocking on the ceiling.

Yet what this example also highlights is that The Tenant is about paranoia, about the oppression from within, as much as oppression from outside. After a number of complaints, and warnings from the landlord, Trelkovsky becomes so afraid of disturbing or angering anyone that he begins to obsess over his own actions, and about the way that people see him. Another example of this is when a female tenant vomits outside the doors of the residents she is in dispute with, and Trelkovsky panics over the absence of vomit in front of his own, believing that this would be considered highly suspicious in the eyes of the other tenants. Indeed, his worry swells to such an extent that he attempts to vomit himself, and when he cannot do so he actually picks up some from outside another door and places it in front of his own.

“Look at me, I’m not worthy of your anger, I’m nothing but a dumb animal who can’t prevent the noisy symptoms of his decay, so don’t waste your time with me, don’t dirty your hands by hitting me, just try to put up with the fact that I exist. I’m not asking you to like me, I know that’s impossible, because I’m not likeable, but at least do me the kindness of despising me enough to ignore me”

It has been said of The Tenant that it is a horror story. For the majority of the novel I found this description perplexing. It was strange, and even mildly disconcerting at times, but horrific? No, no. And then, close to the end, the disconcertion increased, intensified, until I become genuinely unnerved. There is one scene that has stayed with me in this regard, which involved a number of female tenants standing on boxes, outside Trelkovsky’s window, dancing in a grotesque fashion. In writing that sentence I was tempted to laugh, but I wasn’t, believe me, laughing at the time. In any case, the impact upon the novel of this shift towards horror is interesting in a number of ways, but the most significant is that it validates Trelkovsky, so that the ultimate message appears to be, to quote a popular phrase, that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

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THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

THE TARTAR STEPPE BY DINO BUZZATI

Generally speaking, I am laidback, to the extent that people often accuse me of not caring about anything. That isn’t the case, but it is true that very little ruffles me. I might be wrong, but I put this down to an upbringing during which there was the constant threat of disaster, such that I became passive, by virtue of over-familiarity, in the face of hardship or bad luck. However, there is one kind of situation in which I consistently, unnecessarily, become agitated, and that is when waiting for something. I am, for example, terrible in queues. I tap my foot, glance at my watch every few seconds, sigh loudly, turn in circles, etc. People eye me suspiciously. I must give the impression, the perhaps accurate impression, of mental instability.

If I had to guess as to why this kind of situation bothers me I would say that it is because it is dead time. Time passes, as it always does, with oppressive relentlessness and speed, and yet it is not being filled with anything productive or worthwhile. For someone who is so concerned about death, about the eternity of nothingness that awaits me, it is absurd, even tragic, that so much of the life afforded us is wasted in this way, by which I mean twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to happen. For me, it is an extreme form of boredom, but, more than that, it is a forced confrontation with the meagreness of existence, with the reality that life is slipping through your fingers.

There are a number of novels that are [at least partly] concerned with these kind of feelings or predicaments, but the most notable, the most moving, is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which was published in 1940. Buzzati’s protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is a young and inexperienced lieutenant who has just received his first posting. From the beginning there is an unremitting gloominess and weariness hanging over the text. Drogo had, we’re told, looked forward to this day for years, it was to be the ‘beginning of his real life,’ a break from the dreadful days of studying and being at the academy. Yet while he acknowledges that the posting presents an opportunity for exciting new experiences, Drogo fails to find ‘the expected joy’ in putting on his uniform, and laments the passing of what were, he thinks, probably his ‘best years.’

One sees in this defining aspects of Drogo’s character, and the novel as a whole. He is indecisive, unsure of himself, and he constantly worries, while engaged in one activity, that he ought to be doing something else, or that he ought to have made a different decision and is now missing out. As a result, he nearly always feels unsatisfied and melancholy and disappointed. For example, when he arrives at Fort Bastiani he almost immediately wants to leave, to return home, and yet he allows himself to be persuaded to stay, for four months at least, and then persuades himself that he actually wants to stay. Indeed, throughout the the text there is this back and forth, this vacillating between going and staying. Of course, we can all relate to this, to the anxiety and doubt that accompanies our choices, but for Drogo it becomes paralysing.

Consider his behaviour towards Maria, a young woman for whom he has, or once had, feelings. Around two thirds of the way into the book, Drogo is on leave from the Fort, and he goes to see Maria in an attempt to reconnect with his previous life in the city. She is obviously still keen and tries to elicit from him some sign of his enduring affection; in short, she wants him to vow to not return to the Fort, in order to be with her. Drogo is aware of this, and at least some part of him wants to give her this assurance. He contemplates it, acknowledges that this is his chance, then ‘suddenly he lost all desire.’  So instead of acting, instead of making a decision, either one way or the other, he does nothing. He does not tell Maria that he wants to be with her, but neither does he tell her that he isn’t interested. What he does, in typical fashion, is defer to some future time, when all might resolve itself satisfactorily, without him having to make a choice.

“Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed.”

The nature of Time [yes, with a capital T] plays a significant role in the book. First of all, The Tartar Steppe exists outside of time, which is to say that there is no indication as to when it is set, in what period. Furthermore, as previously noted, at the beginning of the book Drogo is a young man, so it is natural that he would feel as though he has many years ahead of him, as though life was inexhaustible. Yet he frequently uses it – an abundance of time – as an excuse, as a reason for putting things off [as seen with Maria] or as a way of giving himself false hope. In terms of plot, The Tartar Steppe is about the possibility of a war. It is, one must remember, the job of the soldiers in the Fort to defend it, that is why they [including Drogo] are there. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is no threat, that the men will not see action.

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[Il deserto dei Tartari, directed by Valerio Zurlini]

Far from a important military stronghold, Bastiani gives the impression of being neglected, of being on the verge of ruin. It is ‘small’ and ‘unimposing’; it is a melancholy place surrounded by featureless desert and wrapped in almost permanent mist. Indeed, it is said that while once it was a honour to be posted there, it is now more of a punishment. Again, it is important to point out that the nature of this punishment isn’t related to how dreary the place is, not entirely, it is due to the very slim chance that the soldiers will ever get to test themselves, will ever be allowed, in the midst of fighting, to honour themselves and display bravery, etc. To return to Drogo, he understands that Bastiani is a dead-end place, literally and in terms of his career, but, because he feels as though he has all the time in the world, he is prepared to wait, to hold on, to put off doing something else [i.e. going back to the city, where excitement is largely guaranteed]  in the hope that one day soon something worthwhile will happen there. The tragedy is, of course, that while you are doing this, while you are waiting, time does not stand still, it carries on, life leaves you behind.

One of the most impressive features of the novel is that, for all the glum and gloominess, or perhaps because of it, The Tartar Steppe is as funny as it is moving and beautiful. First of all, the situation the characters find themselves in, that of soldiers wasting their entire lives at a Fort in the desert where there is little likelihood of action, is as absurd as anything in Beckett or Kafka. Large parts of the novel are given over to men looking through telescopes at the monotonous surrounding landscape, and periodically convincing themselves that the ‘little black spots’ they spy in the distance are an approaching enemy army. This makes me chuckle just writing about it. There is a particular scene, featuring Tronk and Drogo, where they discuss one of these black spots in the distance [one saying it is a stone, another saying it is mist], that could have been lifted from Waiting for Godo. I was also greatly amused that, in the absence of an enemy, they end up shooting at one of their own.

It is troubling that, for a book so concerned with time, and wasting your life, and so on, I have managed to spend a couple of hours, and multiple paragraphs, writing a review that, I now realise, has not engaged with half of the ideas that I wanted it to. Drogo’s fear of the unknown? His reluctance to move out of his comfort zone? No. Maturity, and the responsibilities that come with being an adult? No. Loneliness? No. Monotony? Death? I guess, in a way. I could devote another 1000 words to all that, and other things. But the sun is shining, in a fashion, and it is the weekend, so, bearing in mind Buzzati’s warning, I ought to go do something that doesn’t involve a computer screen and a [now almost empty] packet of cigarettes.

EDIT: In the time it took me to post this review the sun has disappeared and it has started to rain. So I might just stay in and watch football and drink tea. YOLO.