For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.


As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.



With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.


While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.


I have made mention of my poor upbringing, the trying circumstances in which I was raised, in numerous reviews. It’s something that never seems to go away, is always there, creeping around at the back of my mind like some sinister, hungry woodland creature. As I was so miserable, I would regularly fantasise about escape, about far off places, or extravagant reversals of fortune. Each night I would imagine myself on a raft, in the middle of an ocean as bright as neon bar signs, with sleek sharks swimming underneath and around me; I would long to be sent to the bus or train station on some undefined errand, where I would jump on a random train or bus and restart my life in a new place; I would spend hours thinking about being approached by some rich man or woman, who would have inexplicably taken a shine to me and would want to make me their heir. Moreover, I would often do strange and dangerous things, in an effort to breach the surface of my unhappiness, and force my life to move in another direction.

While I would prefer it not to be the case I see some similarities between myself and Remo Augusto Erdosain, the protagonist, and anti-hero, in Roberto Alrt’s cult classic Los Siete Locos. The impoverished Erdosain is a failed inventor and thief, having stolen a significant sum of money [600 pesos, and seven cents!] from the sugar company he works for. At one stage he justifies his actions as being motivated by need, a need created by the small wage he is paid. And this of course makes sense; yet he admits that he didn’t use the money to pay for necessities, such as shoes, that he actually blew it on extravagances.

Erdosain is a self-styled ‘hollow man,’ who, like I once was, is prey to relentless fantasies, such as being accosted by a millionairess who will want to marry him. However, as no milliionairess is forthcoming he has been forced to act himself. In this regard, he claims to have actually stolen from his employer in order to enliven his existence. One gets the impression that Erdosain is someone to whom things happen; his wife leaves him, Barsut beats him, the world consistently canes the back of his knees. His anti-social behaviour is, therefore, one of a man who wants to impose his will on the world, to make it sit up and take notice, rather than passively submit to the vicissitudes of existence. If he steals, if he kills, the world, he believes, will be forced to acknowledge him, and he will, for once, feel alive, feel like someone.


Arlt’s protagonist is one of literature’s most wretched, self-pitying characters. He is in a near constant state of despair; he is mentally and emotionally unstable. Indeed, he talks about an ‘Anguish Zone,’ in which he spends the vast majority of his time, raking over his feelings and his bizarre thoughts. He is, in all honesty, sometimes exhausting and unpleasant company. He isn’t, however, by any means the most unpleasant character to inhabit the novel, or even the most memorable. The Seven Madmen also includes Ergueta, who believes that Jesus has blessed him with the a formula for winning at roulette; the aforementioned Barsut, a relative of Remo’s wife, who gleefully announces that it would be ‘amazing’ to shoot both of them and then kill himself; The Melancholy Thug, a pimp, who says that if he was told that unless he took one of his girls out of the game she would perish in seven days, would work her for six and let her die on the last. Ah, and then there is The Astrologer.

Much like Vladimir in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, The Astrologer is a shady figure hellbent on social/political chaos. Inspired by the KKK and Mussolini, he wants to create a number of revolutionary cells, with training camps in the mountains; these cells will be funded by brothels. Furthermore, he intends to recruit from the vulnerable, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. Anyone who knows a thing or two about terrorist or fascist organisations will find this stuff familiar. It has always been the case that the dregs of society, the displaced, have found themselves targeted by these groups, because they are easier to radicalise, are more likely to unquestioning swallow the propaganda. The truth is that if you feel worthless, or lost, you can be seduced by something that appears to value you. It is also worth noting what The Astrologer [prophetically] says about dictators, which is that the new breed will come from the industrialists, those in charge of oil etc. We all, unfortunately, are now coming to understand something about the power of those at the forefront of the oil industry, and the abuses they are involved in.

However, for a novel that is often held up as politically prescient, I don’t think revolution etc was Arlt’s real focus, or certainly one could say that this stuff feeds in to his more general concerns about domination and sadism. Early in the narrative Erdosain imagines people being put in cages, being essentially treated like animals. And, yes, one could see a kind of political metaphor about masters and slaves in this, but that could not be said of all of the content. For example, Erdosain is repeatedly humiliated and abused; remember that his wife leaves him for another man, he is beaten by Barsut, etc. Moreover, The Melancholy Thug talks about wanting to take a blind teenager into prostitution; this girl, we’re told, habitually sticks needles in her hands.

“Who is more heartless, a brothel owner or the shareholders of a large company?”

It is important not to overlook the role of religion in all this, and in Latin American society. Throughout the book, Arlt makes reference to Christianity [Ergueta marrying a prostitute, for example, because he thinks that this is what the bible encourages], and specifically a lack of belief in God, which is blamed for the awful state of humanity; indeed, Ergueta at one point says that “if you believed in God you would have been spared your wretched life.” Whether the rejection of God means that anything is permissible is an age-old existential question. Certainly, Arlt, or his characters, appear to think that anything goes in a world without Him. And, for me, in this way we get to the crux of the novel, which is that Argentina in the 1920’s is a Godless hell, populated by prostitutes, swindlers, down and outs, and weirdos. These people have no spiritual guidance, and therefore no reason to morally toe the line, to passively accept their miserable circumstances.

Published in 1929, it is often said of The Seven Madmen that it was the first Latin American novel to deal with poverty and the working class, with low-lifes and the grim reality of their existence; and that it was also the first to be written in colloquial language, in contrast to the prevailing Borgesian formal style. I don’t know if that is true and, to be honest, I don’t much care, because being the first to do something does not, on its own, make a book a worthwhile or enjoyable reading experience. Arlt himself said that he had no style, that he didn’t have time to develop his own voice, but I think that is false. There is certainly an identifiable style here, for better or worse.

“Erdosain himself was trying to puzzle out why there was such a huge void inside him, a void that engulfed his consciousness, leaving him incapable of finding the words to howl out the eternal suffering he felt.”

I must admit that parts of the novel really tested my patience, especially those given over to Erdosain’s anguish. These passages or chapters are not necessarily badly written, although they are incredibly overwrought, and there are one or two memorable lines [for example,”each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next”]. The problem is that they are all more or the less the same, so that once you’ve read one you need not, or will perhaps not want to, read the others, and yet they keep coming! One might also object to the sloppiness, whereby the novel begins in the third person, with no hint that the authorial voice is anything other than impersonal, only to switch to being narrated by an acquaintance of Erdosain’s, someone who has heard his confession. This narrator, after quite some pages have passed, also starts to insert pointless footnotes. In these ways, one might be tempted to call The Seven Madmen an anti-novel, which is certainly an attractive phrase, but unfortunately there is, in reality, no such thing. In any case, although the book is messy, repetitive, and emotionally and psychologically overcooked, there is still something pleasingly grimy and unhinged about it.



I no longer want to be a police officer, said the police officer as he left the station, the police officer who had been, in effect, thrown out of the station by his boss, because he couldn’t take his eyes from the message, was somehow hypnotised by it, would have happily carried on looking at it for hours or days or weeks or years or even for the rest of his life, which is probably why his boss, perhaps sensing that something was wrong, that something ‘out of the ordinary’ was happening, had slammed the laptop shut and told his subordinate to leave, had even contemplated the possibility of having him forcibly removed, because the expression on the police officer’s face when the message was taken away, that ‘truly important message’ that the still missing [P] had passed to the fisherman, that ‘strange image,’ was genuinely alarming, was a look somehow both malevolent and yet vacant, and that look, the boss said later to his wife, had given him ‘the creeps,’ and, in all fairness, it would have, at one time, given the police officer the creeps too, had he been able to see his own face, or if the look had been on someone else’s face, but his own face, or the face of anyone else, was of no concern to him whatsoever now, would never be of concern to him again, because, if he was forced to sum up his current mood, which he would, in truth, have found very difficult, it was that nothing mattered anymore, that all was lost, that we, by which he would mean the human race, were one step away from oblivion, absolute chaos, and this mood, this idea, had somehow been implanted into him by the message, the message that he was still able to summon up in his mind, was at that precise moment in time summoning up in his mind, and as a result of being so taken up with this message the police officer did not notice that, despite it only being 4pm, the city had been thrown into total, obliterating, darkness, which, had he been capable of expecting anything where the sky was concerned, would have been contrary to his expectations, because it ought not to have been so dark so early, [in fact the sky had ‘never been that dark before,’ according to an old woman at her window], which could perhaps be explained by the absence of stars, for there were no stars in the sky, and, what’s more, the darkness wasn’t even relieved by streetlights as, almost as though they had been caught unawares, they remained off, which was possibly a good thing, because it meant that the police officer could not see the suddenly, inexplicably, rising waters of the River Don, nor the rising water in the sewers and drains, all of which had begun to break and overflow, leaving everything – the pavements, roads, and grass etc – under a ankle-deep layer of dirty water and sludgy excrement, a potentially hazardous, certainly unhealthy, situation, if you were out in the street and walking through it, but there appeared to be no one in the streets at all, no one except the police officer, who was still thinking about [P]’s message, although this thought was now supplemented by thoughts relating to [P]’s diary, which the police officer still had in his possession, this diary that was now most important to him, a diary that he now believed was crucial, and the key to finding [P], that crazy kid who the police officer was intent on locating, for reasons that he could not yet comprehend, but which had nothing to do with any kind of formal investigation.

A book, repeated the landlord, as the detective, who had been tasked with finding both missing people, by which we mean [P] and the police officer originally in charge of the case, for the police officer had now also disappeared, shone a torch in his face, which wasn’t some kind of interrogation technique, but was necessary due to what the local people were calling ‘the blackout,’ the blackout being the total, obliterating, inexplicable darkness that had descended on the city, a blackout that could not be alleviated with street-lighting because electricity had gone out too, perhaps due to the flood, and so the local population had taken to carrying torches, the prices of torches as a result going ‘through the roof,’ and it was one such torch that was shining in the face of the landlord, [P]’s landlord that is, who had been, the detective thought, the last person to speak to the missing police officer, the police officer who, according to the landlord, had called on him and demanded to be let into [P]’s apartment, because he needed to search the apartment again for clues, a request that struck the landlord as strange, certainly, but not the sign of a crazy man, no, he didn’t start to think the police officer was crazy until they were inside the apartment and he began to tear it apart, an act that, make no mistake, he would be seeking damages for, and the point of this search, this tearing apart of the flat, was, it turned out, a book, a Hungarian book, written by someone called Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a name he remembered because the crazy police officer kept shouting it at him, the landlord that is, as though he expected him to know the book and to know precisely where it was, if it was even there at all, which, fortunately, it was, fortunately because he ‘probably would’ve torn down the whole apartment block’ if he had not been able to find it, and you’re sure the name of this book, asked the detective, is The Melancholy of Resistance? and the landlord nodded, for he would probably never forget the title, it being part of an experience that was perhaps the most terrifying of his life, the police officer acting, in the landlord’s words ‘like a savage animal,’ one that had been shot with a tranquilliser dart that had not taken effect, but only served to ‘piss the beast off even more’ and so, yes, he was absolutely sure that the title of the book that he had been looking for, and which he eventually found in the rubble of the apartment, was The Melancholy of Resistance, and was written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and, no, he had no idea at all what the significance or importance of this book was, only that the police officer thought it was absolutely imperative that he read it, and in particular that he should be able to read [P]’s copy, because, the police officer had shouted, [P] was the only one who could help him, and that he was ‘sorry, very sorry,’ for having to behave in this manner, for destroying the apartment in this way, but that, unfortunately, was the way the world was going, that it was hurtling towards total destruction, so this destroying of the apartment was merely a taster of what was to come, what was, he sniggered, ‘already here,’ and what most frightened the landlord about all this was that when the police officer turned the book over and, shining his flashlight on it, read the blurb on the back, slowly and reverently, as though reciting a prayer or passage from a holy book, that, total destruction, or apocalypse, or something very similar, was the subject of the book, and, well, look outside why don’t you, does that not look like an apocalypse to you?

He wanted to know if I had read the book, said the English Literature professor of the local university, who, apparently, the police officer had briefly kidnapped, and who had turned up at the police station to report the crime, quite independently of the ongoing investigation into [P]’s and the police officer’s disappearance, not at all being in a position to make the connection, and not being in possession of any of the facts concerning the current case, his sense of events being no more complicated than that this blackout, and the subsequent strange, and dangerous, atmosphere sweeping the city had resulted in a crazy bibliophile kidnapping him and interrogating him as to the merits of a relatively obscure Hungarian author and his book The Melancholy of Resistance, which, the professor was pleased to report, he had read, for he felt sure that if he hadn’t read it the madman might have killed him, ‘all on account of a book, if you can believe that,’ a book that the madman was very insistent on discussing, especially in relation to another Krasznahorkai novel called War & War, which, by all accounts, the police officer had disliked initially but which had subsequently grown in stature in his mind, aided by some message he had been exposed to, and it was the style, first of all, that he wanted to discuss, and how the sentences in Melancholy were shorter than those in War & War, less complex, and probably not as beautiful, but, and he was most insistent on this but, it was, the style that is, more uniquely his own in this novel, less blatant in its debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he had never read by the way, and this Krasznahorkai style was most obviously manifested in the way that he embedded conversation within the text by placing spoken phrases in commas, a technique that the police officer thought was much more successful and interesting than italicising these phrases as he tended to do in the novel War & War, especially as it was often cliched phrases that were put in commas, which struck him as a nice way of highlighting the abundant use of cliched phrases by ordinary people, without it feeling as though the author was a bad and lazy writer who was reliant on these phrases because he lacked the talent to transcend them, and of course there was still very few paragraph breaks, if any, and very few chapters, and the sentences were still long by ‘normal standards,’ and while the well-known Krasznahorkai themes were ‘present and correct,’ he preferred the way that they were presented in Melancholy, he preferred Melancholy‘s wrapping paper, found the story more inventive, featuring, as it did, a whole town falling apart, literally and morally, coinciding with the arrival of a strange circus and their main attraction, and while War & War was also about disorder, was also apocalyptic, by focussing mostly on one man it was possible to see this man as crazy, to dismiss his ideas as those of a lone madman, and so, while the characterisation was perhaps stronger in War & War due to this more narrow focus, Melancholy was the better book, and besides characterisation wasn’t his strong suit anyway, ‘not even in War & War,’ shouted the police officer, but that it was ideas and scenes where Krasznahorkai excelled, and that these ideas and these scenes spoke to him ‘in a deep way,’ because he, the police officer, firmly believed that the whole world was going down the toilet, that he had been unable to see it, until he had received a message that is, and that now his eyes were open, that it wasn’t that God did not exist, but that He had turned his back, hence the blackout, which was the shadow of God’s back, and that he now saw that people were like actors on a stage in an empty theatre gesturing ridiculously, pompously, self-importantly, to no one, to no audience, and that at last someone, having lost patience with this poor performance, was tearing down the theatre itself, and he wanted to draw his attention, the professor’s, he said, to the passage where Eszter explains that while he always thought music was our one shot at perfection he had now realised that it was nothing more than a way of deluding ourselves into thinking the world was better than it is, that music is a way of covering up our faults, is an act of misdirection, diverting our attention away from the truth, and, almost crying now, the police officer that is, he went on to tell him about the scene where Valuska explains the movement of the planets – the earth and moon etc – to a bunch of drunks in a pub, getting them to act out that movement, each patron a planet, and how this was both funny and touching, and how that is an extremely difficult thing to pull off.

I know where to find them, said the detective to his boss, who, like the very best detectives, was prone to these intuitions, although his boss was sceptical to say the least, believing that the two crazy kids, a strange description considering the missing police officer was 35, had both ‘done themselves in,’ probably by jumping in the River Don, which by now was like a seething brown monster snatching away anything within striking distance, and that it didn’t really matter anyway, as it seemed the whole world, the city itself, the earth, was intent on doing itself in, and was ‘going to take us all with it whether we liked it or not,’ and so the detective, who wasn’t quite so pessimistic – who saw in the state of the city nothing more sinister than civil disorder, a situation that could be rectified, by extreme force if necessary, not the first signs of an apocalypse – mumbled an insult under his breath and prepared to leave the station, which was a brave thing to do, what with the blackout still ‘in full swing’ and the flooding getting worse by the day, and the large intimidating crowds of people reported to be blocking the streets, most of whom had, in the initial stages of the unrest, actually tried to stay indoors, but had been forced out into the open by the flooding of their homes and/or the now rampant burglary, looting and arson of their properties and possessions, who, once the acrid air had hit their nostrils, once confronted by the overwhelming, some would say liberating, sight of the criminal minority in action, had been absorbed into it, and had taken up the looting and arson etc of which they had themselves been victim, so now almost the whole city was outdoors, and it was this situation that the detective was about to step into, all for the sake of finding two missing people, despite it being the case that far more than two people had gone missing recently, and an even larger number were dead, but it was perhaps the case that in times of chaos one had to hold onto something, one had to maintain some order in your life, even if that is an entirely pointless and absurd police investigation, to get you through the day, to keep you from submitting to ‘the call of the wild,’ like seemingly everyone else in the city had done, those crowds that the detective was about to come into contact with as he passed through the door of the police station, the crowds that, to his immense surprise, almost as though they were ‘taking a breather,’ or had run out of mischief to cause, or were waiting for something important, were at that precise moment strangely subdued, with most people standing around, their hands in their pockets, around the large bonfires they had built, staring, the detective now noticed, intently at the sky, and so, the apparent calm being enough to convince him that he wasn’t in immediate danger, the detective approached one of the bystanders and asked him what everyone was doing, to which the man replied that they were ‘looking for the stars,’ even though there hadn’t been a single star in the sky for weeks, as though these people had been conditioned to expect them, and therefore still sought that illumination in the sky, the endeavour almost becoming a new form of worship, as for hundreds of years people had sought answers in the sky, and now they were seeking comfort in it, a comfort that was not forthcoming.          

You’ll never believe what I witnessed here, said the detective to the looter, who had been ‘just passing’ when he spied the open door and opportunistically ‘decided to investigate,’ the detective who, thought the looter, spoke unnaturally loudly, as though the two men, those ‘crazy kids,’ were still alive to hear him, which was ‘certainly not the case,’ here being the Crucible Theatre by the way, which is where the detective’s intuition had told him the men would be, and he was right of course, as they were there, he could vouch for that, and, although it may be hard to believe, one of the men was still alive when he entered the theatre and made his way towards the front of the main stage, because there on the stage he found the police officer, yes, quite alive at that time, and standing and singing, not well, quite badly in fact, but singing nonetheless, and at first he couldn’t place the song, it being an old one, one that he hadn’t heard many times before, but had certainly heard a couple of times at least, the line of the song he recognised being ‘And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills till the landslide brought me down’ and so the detective stopped for a while and listened, as he tried to retrieve the name of the song from his memory, and the police officer continued to sing, [‘Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above?’], seemingly oblivious to anything else, even though the detective was standing in plain sight and so, despite the semi-darkness, a darkness alleviated somewhat by some lit candles positioned around the edge of the stage, must have been spotted, if not also heard as he had made his way to the front, therefore one must assume that the police officer was choosing to ignore him, had gone blind, or was even crazier than the detective had imagined he would be, a theory given more credence by the body, the naked body, that was sitting in a chair next to the standing, and still singing, police officer, this body that was slumped over a guitar, despite the obviously careful placement, a body that was, the detective now saw, the body of the missing [P], no longer missing but very clearly dead, and naked, a nakedness the detective felt sure could be explained by the suit of clothes the police officer was wearing, which was a too-small tuxedo, the shirt front spattered here and there with blood, and he couldn’t suppress the almost amusing thought that the duo looked like some kind of grotesque version of Simon & Garfunkel, but, and this was the problem, the detective wasn’t sure, now that he was once again outside, if he had actually seen any of this, or whether it is merely what he wished he had seen, there in the Crucible Theatre, because it would justify everything, a scene so macabre, so gruesome, so thoroughly absurd, that the only legitimate response one could have in the face of it was insanity, a worthy insanity, and not this, this quite ordinary madness that he saw all around him.


I remember kites that would not fly, fish that would not bite.
I remember licking a blade of grass and showing my friends the bloody paper-cut.
I remember standing by the open window of the top-floor flat I lived in as a child,
My arm outstretched, dangling a chewed-on pencil over the abyss,
And how that was the scariest thing I have ever done.
I knew nothing then.
I knew everything.


In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.