thriller

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.

SILENCE BY SHUSAKU ENDO

I’m not a religious man, although I wish that I was. I’ve said before, elsewhere, that believing in God would, I think, relieve or put an end to a lot of my anxiety. Much of the time I feel awfully lost, and ashamed of my own weakness, my own humanity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t simply self-loathing; I’m ashamed of the rest of you too. I look around myself and everything seems so brutal and meaningless, and yet to live with even a smidgen of happiness you have to be able to imbue life with meaning. The idea that all this is a trial, something to endure for a while on the road to a greater reward, would be comforting for me. But unfortunately I cannot accept that.

Bearing my atheism in mind, it is easy to see why Shusako Endo’s Silence might alienate me, as it is concerned with the nature of faith, with spreading the word of God, and Christian martyrdom. I am interested in these things, of course, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that my interest was strong enough to make reading a novel such as this worthwhile. Yet while it is certainly the case that Silence will resonate most with someone for whom these things play a role in their everyday life, the novel, as evidenced by how highly-thought of it is, has a wide appeal, it transcends its specific subject and concerns. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant, in my opinion, certainly in terms of my own enjoyment, is that the author injected both pace and tension into his narrative by borrowing from the mystery-thriller genre.

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

The text invites you to mull over many theological and philosophical questions, but it a different kind of question that gives the novel momentum: what happened to Father Ferreira? Ferreira is a well-respected priest, a missionary, who sailed to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed, in order to help and support oppressed Japanese Christians. Rumour has it, however, that he apostatised under torture. Due to a scarcity of reports, and dismissing those relating to apostasy, two young priests, former students of Ferreira’s, travel to Japan in order to find out the truth. So on the most basic level Silence is an investigation, a search for a missing person.

Moreover, the two men know that to be a Christian priest in Japan in the 1600’s is extremely dangerous, that they are, in effect, entering enemy territory. As you would expect, then, there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia; secret hiding places are created, people are eyed suspiciously, etc. One of these people is Kichijiro, a Japanese who helps the priests to enter the country and claims to be able to put them in contact with local Christians. When Kichijiro first appears in the novel he is drunk, and his personality and behaviour is consistently described in negative terms. He is, we’re told, an idler; he is cunning; he is a coward. There is, not surprisingly, a general uneasiness amongst the priests in relation to him, a feeling that he may one day sell them out, may denounce them to the Japanese authorities. Indeed, he is clearly set up to be a Judas figure.

However, these things are not, of course, the heart of the novel. This, as noted, involves a series of theological/philosophical issues and questions, the most important of which pertains to the title. The silence that Endo is referring to is God’s. One of the oldest, and most popular, criticisms of God is that if he exists, and if he is all powerful and all good, why does he not intervene to prevent or lessen suffering or at least reveal himself to those who are suffering? His silence, it is argued, suggests ambivalence, it gives the impression that he does not care. So, when the poor and wretched Japanese are being tortured for their beliefs, one of the priests, Sebastião Rodrigues, wonders how it can be that God does not want to show them some solidarity or empathy; he feels as though he has, in a sense, turned his back on them, and it makes him uncomfortable, to the extent that his own faith wavers somewhat.

“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

I must admit that I found all this slightly odd, especially considering that Endo was himself a Christian and ought, therefore, to understand the nature of faith [as would a priest!]. What I mean by this is that a vocal God would make faith itself meaningless. What is powerful about faith is that it exists without consistent and conclusive proof of God’s existence; the important thing is to retain a belief in him and his teachings in the face of his silence, because, let’s face it, anyone can do that if he drops in for regular chats; in order words, it’s hard to doubt the creator of the universe when he is in direct contact with you.

Faith also plays a part in one of the novel’s other major themes, which is apostasy. As previously mentioned, that father Ferreira is said to have apostatised under torture shocks his former students, who refuse to believe it. Therefore, apostasy, i.e. turning your back on your religion, is clearly seen as something shameful, even if one is driven to it by being subjected to intense pain. Faith is necessary in a situation like this, because our natural instinct is to avoid pain. One would need something to make enduring it possible or at least seem worthwhile, and that is a commitment to God, and a belief that negative experiences are a test, and that one’s reward for passing it will come later. Without a strong belief in God allowing oneself to be killed or tortured, rather than apostatise, would be madness.

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[The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. 17th-century Japanese painting]

What is notable about Endo’s take on apostasy is that he acknowledges that faith alone is not enough to justify suffering. While one might take it upon oneself, one might accept one’s own fate, it is a different situation to be faced with the suffering of others. Rodrigues, who narrates part of the novel, and serves as the central character throughout, is given an ultimatum, which is ‘apostatise or others will be tortured and ultimately murdered.’ Initially, he is unsure how to approach this issue, how to deal with the responsibility or resolve his dilemma. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal his decision. However, I would myself argue that God is understanding, that he is not a tyrant, and therefore a sin such as apostasy would be forgiven in certain circumstances. One must bear in mind that most ordinary people would forgive someone who ‘does wrong’ while being tortured or does so in an effort to prevent the torture of others; and so if God is less understanding and sympathetic than man, one must ask oneself if he is actually worth following anyway.

There is, of course, more that can be written about all this, but a book review is not the place for an in-depth theological discussion. I do want, however, to touch upon one other thing before concluding, which is the role of the missionary. For me, the most fascinating, the most engaging and original, aspect of Endo’s novel is in relation to those who go to foreign countries in order to spread their religion. I’m no expert, but as far as I know, converting others is an important part of Christianity; and this makes sense because if you believe that your religion is the right one, then it is one’s duty, as a human being, to attempt to make others see the error of their ways. To not do so would be, in a sense, to condemn them. However, what if your religion is not good for them, or if it is incompatible with their culture? This is what the local authorities think, that Christianity simply cannot take root in Japan. Even Rodrigues and Ferreira are not convinced that the natives understand the religion, or the Christian God, in the way that they ought to, that they think of him as a man, a powerful human being. This is something that I had never considered before, that, with cultural and language barriers, bringing your religion to another nation is almost impossible. It is like a complex form of Chinese whispers, whereby one can recognise the original message when it reaches its destination, but something essential is missing. Is spreading the word not, therefore, pointless? Certainly, it seems horribly cruel to encourage the natives to suffer for this confused form of Christianity.

Much of what I have written so far has not given an indication as to how I feel about Endo’s novel. I must admit that I found it dreadfully disappointing. Thematically, if one has never engaged with these issues, Silence might strike you as profound. Yet having studied the philosophy of religion I was familiar with most of the book’s ideas, and therefore did not find it especially rewarding. More importantly, the writing is simply not very good; in fact at times it is woeful. On this, not only are Endo’s metaphors obvious and clichéd, but he keeps repeating them. For example, Kichijiro is described as being like a cowering dog multiple times. This could be a translation issue – and there are, in fact, Endo novels that are not as poorly written – but, alas, I cannot prove that. In any case, there are other problems that can only be laid at the feet of the author, including an overemphasis on the parallels between Rodrigues and Jesus. All of this meant that my overriding impression of the book was of one that is laboured and unsophisticated.

THE MAHE CIRCLE BY GEORGES SIMENON

There is a British TV series, which I think aired in the 1970’s, called The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. I watched it as a child, on one of those TV Gold type channels [I wasn’t around in the 70’s, of course]. As I remember it, the basic premise of the show was that Reginald fakes his own death, by leaving his clothes at the beach, as a means of escape, an escape from his sterile life, and then moves away and starts again, reboots himself, so to speak. I’ve long found this idea extraordinarily attractive. The show plays on my mind a lot. I’ve always had an anti-conventional mind-set, by which I mean that whenever I have been in a situation that one might call stable, or whenever my personal circumstances have been settled, I have instinctively rebelled against it. The most extreme example of this was when I was in relationship with a lovely girl, but I could not handle the stultifying daily grind of dinner with her parents, conversations about career goals, etc, and so, with no warning, up and left her and moved to London to be with a girl I had known only a few weeks. Yes, sometimes you have to try to escape; sometimes your social and family circle feels like a noose.

The Mahé Circle starts with a frown. As first sentences go, it is not particularly exciting, but it is significant, and strangely effective. The Mahé of the title is Doctor Mahé, who, when we meet him, is on a boat. He has, it appears, engaged a local man, Gene, to take him out fishing. However, Doctor Mahé, unlike his companion, isn’t doing well; most of the time he catches nothing, and when he does manage to tempt something onto his bait it is a diables, which is some kind of horrid spiny fish that, amusingly, you cannot touch with your bare hands and must be immediately thrown back. Ruefully, Mahé notes that, although he is a failure as a fisherman, he is doing exactly what Gene does, that their technique or approach is the same.

Disappointment, unease, and a strange kind of tension, permeates this evocative opening section. The doctor has a headache, the wine that was brought on board is warm, his wife is a smudge on the shore, and an approaching boat brings news that a local woman is near death. Indeed, Mahé is actually on holiday, but you wouldn’t know it, for nothing about his demeanour or circumstances suggests fun or freedom; it is, in fact, made clear that the climate and atmosphere of the mediterranean island of Porquerolles is hostile to him. However, as the narrative progresses, once Mahé and his family have returned home, it is revealed that there is something about that hostility that he craves, that it, in some way, makes him feel alive.

“In Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”

Simenon is at pains to stress that Doctor Mahé’s life, his life at home, away from Porquerolles, is a conventional one. He makes a comfortable living; he has a wife and children and he still lives with his mother. Moreover, his mother is said to still tell him when to change his underwear, she also chose his wife [more for herself, than for him, Mahé thinks], and this wife, with the bland smell, is described as being incapable of full-blooded grief [which is used a kind of criticism, as a way of highlighting her middle-of-the-road nature]. It is not difficult, then, to see how the island – with its extreme heat, scorpions etc – offers greater excitement, a sense of something other, something different. Placing cosseted or average men in a [comparatively] wild environment, making them literally and existentially confront the alien, is a trick often made use of by authors, but this is one of only two times [The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier being the other] that I have come across a protagonist that actually enjoys, yearns for that hostility.

There is, however, another reason why Mahé wants to return to Porquerolles, there is one other motivating factor. When, at the beginning of the novel, he is asked to attend upon the dying woman he sees, while at her house, a young girl, Elisabeth. From this moment onwards both the girl and the red dress she was wearing when he first saw her come to dominate his thoughts and, in turn, the novel. Initially, one thinks that the doctor might be concerned about her welfare, or even that he simply admires her for the way that she copes with the dire circumstances in which she lives, including dealing with her drunkard father, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has a more sinister interest in her. With each return trip he seeks her out, and on each occasion she has, of course, grown older, more womanly; yet she is, on each occasion, still wearing the same dress.

Throughout the novel Simenon makes use of a number of symbols, like the island of Porquerolles, which is a manifestation of Mahé’s increasingly dangerous, unconventional frame of mind. Elisabeth’s ever shortening and tightening dress is a symbol of Mahé’s lust [the colour red is itself a symbol of lust or danger] and, in a sense, mirrors the unravelling fabric of his life and, like the island, his mind also. Furthermore, a young girl is, of course, a symbol of independence, purity and youth. In one of the most significant episodes Mahé, like the two old men in Witold Gombrowicz’s great Polish novel Pornografia, encourages his nephew Albert to pursue Elisabeth, to sleep with her, in an effort to spoil or sully her. It should be pointed out that Mahé doesn’t really want or value any of these things for themselves, that they exist as symbols for him too; he doesn’t love the island, he doesn’t love the girl either [although the word is used towards the end of the novel it doesn’t convince], he is simply drawn towards anything that isn’t representative of his awful, common life, anything that will or could break the circle that he feels is closing upon him.

“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”

I have read a number of Simenon’s Romans Durs [or hard novels] and while The Mahé Circle is not the worst, it certainly, contrary to a very positive review from John Banville where he compares it to Proust and Flaubert, isn’t one of the best either. Almost all of Simenon’s work is very short, and that often means that his novels are taut and concentrated. However, occasionally one wishes that he had spread his wings, and let the story breathe a bit. This is one of those. The Mahé Circle, while fun enough, and housing some interesting, if well-worn ideas, is simply too insubstantial to really get me excited; indeed, it feels a little rushed. For example, within 20 pages the Mahé family have been on holiday, returned and then gone back. Simenon moves through the gears too quickly, for my liking. In an ordinary thriller a fast pace would not be a problem, but here it seems at odds with the relatively uneventful story of a man questioning his life and slowly plunging into madness or obsession. Moreover, the author does too much telling, and not enough hinting or suggesting; he, in fact, does all the work for you. Again, this is mostly a consequence of length; the small number of pages means that he is forced to summarise or gloss over important events, or changes in Mahé’s thinking or mind-set. Yet, having said that, the structure is satisfying, especially the way that the narrative is circular, mirroring, of course, the title of the book.