I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape. The Lime Twig is one. I had tried a number of times before to finish it, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.
“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”
I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.
What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.
As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]
What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:
“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”
I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.
I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.
As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?
Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.
However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.
“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”
While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.
It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.
She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.
Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.
I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.
There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.
April 1, 20-
I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.
April 2, 20-
I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.
Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.
April 3, 20-
I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.
April 4, 20-
It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.
I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.
April 5, 20-
As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.
I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.
April 6, 20-
Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.
April 7, 20-
There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.
One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.
April 8, 20-
He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.
He feels closest of all to goats.
April 9, 20-
On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.
April 10, 20-
Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?
Must not write about Pessoa.
April 11, 20-
April 12, 20-
In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror. It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.
April 13, 20-
There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’
Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.
And so on.
April 14, 20
There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.
April 15, 20-
Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.
April 16, 20-
I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.
April 17, 20-
The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.
‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’
Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it?
One of the things that makes alien contact attractive is the possibility of interacting with a species more advanced than our own. Outside of films, whenever we think of aliens we tend to see them as superior beings, with great knowledge to impart, more sophisticated technology, etc. In the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic the Russian brothers cleverly played on this idea, with the visitors being completely disinterested in human beings, suggesting, you might argue, a kind of haughtiness in their attitude towards us. But what if it is not the case? What if contact was made and it turned out that we are actually the more advanced species? Looking around me, that strikes me as really quite a depressing thought.
In any case, this is the situation in Hard to be a God, only the alien planet is not simply primitive, relative to earth, but is essentially earth with the clock turned back thousands of years to the middle ages. Upon discovery of this planet human beings have taken to sending observers to live amongst the natives. The reason for this never seems particularly clear, but it is stressed to these people that their task is limited to observation, that they must not interfere or intervene, and they certainly should not reveal their purpose or real identity. Most of the agents find these rules easy enough to stick to, with the notable exception being Rumata [earth name Anton].
For me, this is one of the great existential novels, with Rumata’s emotional and intellectual crisis being as intense, and unrelenting, as any of Dostoevsky’s antiheroes. His role, or part, is as a womanising nobleman and dangerous, expert swordsman. In this he fails, not only because he isn’t allowed to kill anyone, but also because he cannot bear to sleep with any of the native women, who are not prone to bathing. More interestingly, he is a superior, more evolved being, who every day is forced to live amongst, to confront, the barbarous, drunken, and primitive. Moreover, the city is run by the tyrannical Don Reba, who plots and kills, and generally brutalises the locals, paying particular attention to the literate, who are captured and hung. It is in relation to this that one begins to understand the significance of the title.
[From Aleksei German’s film adaptation of the book]
Rumata is the God [in fact numerous characters believe him to be divine] who has the power and knowledge to alter what is happening, even put a stop to it altogether. The dilemma that he faces is a theological one, is one that is generally thought to be God’s. Think about how often you hear people cussing God, criticising Him for not doing something to prevent or put a stop to certain tragedies. When bad things happen He is charged with not caring, with abandoning his children. The counter argument is that if you force people to be good, then goodness essentially becomes meaningless, and if you stop all disasters, if only positive things ever happen, you prevent people from learning through adversity. God, it is said, created free will, and created the world, and then left us all to it, come what may, and this is the best thing for us. These are some of the issues Hard to be a God asks you to consider.
Furthermore, Rumata is aware that he cannot make people enlightened. He could remove Don Reba, he could save individual lives [and he does], but this will actually change nothing, or very little, because the people will still be primitive. On this, I was put in mind of certain conflicts, which are deemed humanitarian, whereby the UK and/or US government has invaded countries and sought to remove a tyrannical regime, with Iraq being the most obvious example. I’m not, I ought to point out, calling Iraqis primitive, but there are parallels between that situation and Hard to be a God, as both raise questions about how much of a responsibility do we have to protect other nations, and how worthwhile is it if you cannot guarantee that the people will accept the new conditions and way of living? There is, moreover, something of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the Strugatsky’s book, in that there is a certain arrogance in going into another country [or planet, in this instance] and negatively judging it against your own. In fact, Hard to be a God could be interpreted as a comment on colonial arrogance, because it suggests that perhaps ‘uncivilised’ countries ought to be left alone, be allowed to develop and work things out on their own.
“And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it.”
It ought to be clear by now that this is a weighty, complex book. I have in this review really only tentatively jabbed at all the fascinating themes and ideas contained within it [I haven’t, for example, discussed the cyclical nature of history]. However, one thing that does demand some attention is the theory that Hard to be a God is political allegory, that the world it describes is really Russia in the 1960’s, the decade in which it was written. This is given weight by the Strugatsky’s themselves, who claimed to have started the book as a kind of Three Musketeers in Space historical romp, only to change their minds. They did so, it is said, due to fears that the death of Stalin, and the thaw that followed, had done little to change the climate of the country, that artists and their art were still under attack, would be suppressed etc. Yet while there is clearly some of this in the book – specifically Don Reba’s hatred for writers and the literate – I feel it is reaching somewhat to suggest that this is the real or primary focus.
Before finishing I want to briefly touch upon a couple of negatives, one more serious than the other. The first is that Hard to be a God is essentially plotless, and pretty repetitive. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance levels where this sort of thing is concerned, but it didn’t particularly bother me. More of an issue was the ending, which felt rushed to me. It was as though the Strugatsky’s had simply taken on too much, too many big questions, and couldn’t figure out how to neatly tie up their narrative, and so it ends at an arbitrary point. Yet while this is a criticism it is, in a way, also a kind of compliment too, because I wanted the book to be longer, I wanted another couple of hundred pages so that we [the reader and the authors] could really, fully ride this engrossing and challenging story out and so achieve a more natural and rewarding conclusion.
In the north of England there once lived a middling sort of gentleman, who, due to a kind of cantankerous disinterest in the human race, was very much taken with reading, so much so, in fact, that he believed that he had read every novel that was worth reading. He had, to the astonishment of the online community, read In Search of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, Henry James’ later novels, The Iliad, The Magic Mountain, and so on, multiple times, and as a result the unfortunate man’s brains became addled. It was, however, perhaps Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous novel about a crazy man who believed himself to be a knight errant, that did him the worst damage. He bought up numerous copies of the book, in multiple translations, and, after reading them all, he started to think himself, not any old knight, but the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote.
To this end, he ordered a helmet from ebay, which to the naked [or sane] eye would have looked like a reproduction Optimus Prime mask. Next, he purchased a sword, a samurai sword, to be exact, from some shady youngster whose acquaintance he had made on a street corner at 3am, and who had initially tried to persuade him to buy a small packet of white powder. These things, though lacking quality, came easy to our hero, but more difficult to acquire was his Rocinante, for there isn’t much call for horses in a busy northern city centre. A solution was found, however, when [P], for that was our hero’s name, spotted a mongrel, homeless dog one evening, which, to him, had the appearance of a magnificent steed. ‘You will be my Rocinante,’ he said to the nervous animal, as he patted its dirty flank. ‘You will accompany me on adventures great, will ride with me into battle.’ The mutt was none too interested in these promises, and so chose to nose its own leg throughout the short speech, but when [P] called it followed, hoping that this mad new master might have as much food in store as strange ideas in his head.
After being well fed and rested, both master and mutt set out the next day in search of chivalrous acts to perform. Early in their journey the pair came upon a man sitting on the ground, his hand out stretched, asking for alms. Of course, any sane person would have passed on by, or nonchalantly let a coin or two fall into the man’s palm, but [P], not being in his right mind, saw not a beggar, but a powerful Genii.
‘O most marvellous and talented Genii’, he said, ‘have you come to grant me wishes?’
‘Wot?’ said the man.
‘What do I wish? I wish…now let me think…’
‘Are you mad, man?’
’Who is Madman? Is he some kind of enchanter?’
The beggar rolled his eyes. ‘’Ave you got any change, mate?’
‘I do not carry a purse, Genii. I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance!’
‘You’re an imbecile!’
‘Hold your tongue; for although thou art a Genii I will not take insults from thee.’
At this, [P] drew his sword and Rocinante, not much in the way of a horse, barked excitedly.
‘Help! Police! This man is trying to kill me!’ shouted the beggar.
Fortunately for him, a Policeman was passing, and seeing, not a chivalrous knight, but Optimus Prime wielding a samurai sword, promptly intervened.
‘What is going on here!’ he said.
‘Good Sir fellow knight,’ replied [P], noting the Policeman’s uniform and baton, and thinking them a suit of armour and a lance, ‘this impertinent Genii hath insulted me and I must defend my honour, as befitting a noble and brave knight errant.’
‘I think you’ll be coming with me, sir,’ said the unruffled policeman, who had seen much worse than this whilst on duty.
‘You want me to accompany you to your kingdom? I must assume there is a knight’s council taking place; or perhaps you need my help in fighting some giant, who hath enslaved your beloved? Pray wait until I have taken care of this small business, and I will do my duty and aid thee.’
Our hero made ready to swing his sword, and would have cut the poor beggar in two, had not the Policeman expertly brained him with his baton. As a result of the blow, [P] fell to the ground in a daze, his sword flung far from him; he was bleeding from the head. ‘Ah, foul double-crosser! Thou art in league with the Genii! In fact, thou art probably not a real knight at all, but a vision, a trick of this so powerful magician!’ Full of wrath, he tried to rise to his feet, and so the Policeman brained him again, and gave him a number of hard punches in the mug for good measure.
When [P] came round he found that he had been imprisoned in some sort of castle tower. His head hurt and his legs felt weak, both of which he attributed to having been given a potent potion, famous for sapping the strength of the most chivalrous and hardy knights. After a moment or two [P] collected his wits, and noticed that he was not alone in the cell, for a young lady was sat on the bench beside him.
‘O beauteous lady,’ he said. ‘O Princess, did the bad knight and the evil Genii capture you too?
‘Great. A crackhead,’ she muttered to herself.
‘Why, yes, they attempted to crack my head. You are unharmed, I trust?’
‘Lay off the pipe, man.’
‘Let me introduce myself, Princess,’ said [P] with a flourish.
‘The last guy who called me princess asked for a handjob and then broke my jaw.’
‘A villain! How could it be!’
‘Occupational hazard. I’m a hooker, love.’
‘Ann Hooker? I have not before heard of thee or the Hooker kingdom,’ replied [P] musingly. ‘I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.’
‘What, as in Cervantes?’
Ah, does her knowledge surprise you? Can a prostitute not read?
‘Cervantes, my father?’
‘No, as in the author who wrote Don Quixote. I have a degree in English literature, you can’t fool me. So where is Sancho, DQ?’
‘Yeah, Sancho Panza, your sidekick, your foil. You have to have a Sancho. He’s the one who you promise the insula to.’
‘Yes. An island. At first it seems as though Sancho is stupid, that he is following you out of greed. But it becomes clear that, really, he is doing so out of friendship. To some extent, Don Quixote is a kind of buddy comedy. It’s quite moving, really, in that way. Anyway, you need a Sancho, because he, unlike you DQ, sees the truth of what you encounter, he…Oh oh oh, oh no…I’M YOUR SANCHO!’
‘Friend Sancho, why art thou dressed as a lady?’ said [P], for he now believed that the once-lovely vision he had seen before him was in fact his loyal squire. ‘Are you here to break me out of this castle prison?’
‘Oh no, listen, I expect to be paid for my services.’
‘I have promised you an insula,’ he replied with great seriousness.
‘Look, DQ, I see what you’re doing here. It’s all very quixotic. You know that word came from the book, right? Something excessively romantic. The modern world needs you, I get that. Ideals. Dedication to just causes. Ok. But have you tilted at windmills? That’s important. It’s a very famous scene.’
‘There are no windmills in the city.’
‘Exactly. And who is going to write your history? The real DQ had Cervantes. And, y’know, you can’t just ignore the fact that in the second half of the book he is famous, because the first part, Cervantes says, had spread word of his madness and adventures.’
‘Ah, I have this covered. I’ve set up a twitter account. You must follow me, Sancho!’
‘Right. And I guess you’ve already got the ‘is art dangerous’ angle covered. Uh, clearly it is dangerous; look at you! Y’know, Flaubert used that idea, or stole it if you like, for Madame Bovary. How much can art, books, whatever, influence you? It’s a fascinating question. They burn your books, y’know, your friends do.’
‘They what my what now? This is an outrage. I have a pristine hardcover copy of The Man Without Qualities!’
‘Gone, DQ. That kind of book gives people unsuitable ideas. What about the stories-within-stories stuff? Lots of that kind of thing in Don Quixote.’
‘Well, this was my first sally. I haven’t got around to all that yet. But I did meet this Ann Hooker lady, a beautiful Princess. Her story ought to be told.’
‘But Ann is Sancho, remember?’
‘Stop quibbling, Sancho. And, er, your bra strap is showing, please adjust it. I will tell the most interesting tale of how Sancho met Princess Ann, and persuaded her to swap costumes.’
‘Very good. But, I must warn you, that being DQ is very likely to cause you physical harm. Nabokov called the book crude and cruel, and, well, it is violent. DQ gets beaten up frequently.’
‘One must risk all to win all.’
‘Fair enough. But, y’know, the whole thing becomes repetitious, there’s no denying that. You’ll have to do the same sort of thing over and over again.’
‘Such is life, Sancho. I would rather encounter the same wonderful thing again and again than have terrible variety.’
‘You’ve become a philosopher, DQ.’
‘I am simply a knight, Sancho, but we knights do trust in our brains, as well as our arms, on occasion.’
‘You’re very good at this, I must say. That sounded just right. Ok, but one last thing, if you have read Don Quixote then you must be aware that what the hero of the book thinks he experiences isn’t real, that where he sees giants there are only windmills, and where he sees The Helmet of Mambrino there is only a barber’s bowl.’
‘Ah, Sancho, of course I know that. But isn’t life more beautiful if you approach it with a noble heart, with wonder and awe? I am not advocating that everyone ought to become Don Quixote, because to be him is to be insane, but one should have a little of his spirit in you. Isn’t that the book’s true message? Those batterings that he takes, which grouchy old Nabokov objected to, those are but the workaday world rapping you on the knuckles, telling you to settle, to be reasonable, to give up your ideals, to stop dreaming the impossible dream. Well, I tell you, friend Sancho, I tell all of you, to dream on, dream the fuck on.’
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 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.