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Monday 30 January 2012

The Storyteller of Marrakesh

The Storyteller of Marrakesh

[T]he more you interrogate memory, which is nothing other than the search for certainty in time, the more you increase your dependence on chance. – Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Storyteller of Marrakesh

Even occasional readers of my blog will have come to realise that the concept of truth is one I struggle with. I like the idea of truth. I think truth’s a great idea. I also think that the technical difficulties in communicating a single truth to another human being are great. As Mustafa, one of the eponymous storyteller Hassan’s younger brothers, the youngest in fact, tells him:

Truth lies, Hassan. It is always masked by words. As a storyteller, you ought to know that more than anyone else.

At the time of that conversation Hassan is adamant: “My stories do not lie … That is not our tradition, not in the legacy Father passed on to me, as it was bequeathed to him by his forefathers,” and yet, years later, this is how Hassan begins his story to us:

What matters in the end is the truth.

And yet, when I think about the event that marked the end of my youth, I can come to only one conclusion: that there is no truth.

Perhaps there is reason to believe the philosopher who realised, to his dismay, that the truth is precisely that which is transformed the instant it is revealed, becoming thereby only one of many possible opinions, open to debate, disagreement, controversy, but also, inevitably, to mystification.

In other words, there is no truth.

Put differently, truth is that which inevitably contradicts itself. Perhaps that is what is borne out by my story in the end. That is why, instead of the truth, I offer you a greater consolation: a dream.

Msa l’khir. Good evening. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Hassan. I am a storyteller, monarch of a realm vaster than any you can envisage, that of the imagination. My memory is not what it used to be, but if we can settle on a democratic price, I will tell you a tale the like of which I promise you have never heard before. It is a love story, like all the best stories, but it is also a mystery, for it concerns the disappearance of one of the lovers or the other, or perhaps both of them or neither. It happened two years ago, or it might have been five or ten or twenty-five. These details are unimportant.


We are privileged. Only once a year does Hassan tell the particular tales we are about to hear. Every year it is a little different and though we might hope this might be the definitive retelling, realistically that is too much to hope for. The most we can expect is to be intrigued; entertained, but, as is the case with the best ghost stories, we are left wondering. If, indeed, any of the players are in fact spirits. Who can tell these things?

Here in the UK, and in most other parts of the world, we are familiar with the art of storytelling: a minimum of two parties are required and their roles are implied by their titles; one is there to tell the tale, the other or others to listen. Not so in Jemaa el Fna, a square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter.

A medina quarter is a distinct city section found in many North African cities. The medina is typically walled, contains many narrow and maze-like streets. The word "medina" (or Médina) (Arabic: مدينة‎, madīna) itself simply means "city" or "town" in modern day Arabic. – Wikipedia

The Jemaa el Fna is especially known for its active concentration of traditional activities by storytellers, musicians and performers and is on one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. The BBC journalist, Richard Hamilton, has just published a non-fiction book entitled The Storytellers of Marrakesh, just in case you run into it and wonder. In it he lists the names of only five remaining storytellers. The photographer Stefano Torrino names seven men on his site, three of whom overlap with Hamilton’s list. Suffice to say this is a dying art. It would be a terrible shame if it is, because what Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya describes in this book sounds truly wonderful:

A story is like a dance. It takes at least two people to make it come to life, the one who does the telling and the one who does the listening. Sometimes the roles are reversed, and the giver becomes the taker. We both do the talking, we both listen, and even the silences become loaded. From a small number of perfectly ordinary words a tapestry takes shape, suggestive of a dream, but close enough to a reality which, more often than not, remains elusive. It is a feat of mutual trust, of mutual imagining. What matters is whether or not we can believe each other’s voices, and the test of that will lie in the story we make together. It will lie in the pieces of the past that swim into the present. Maybe it is precisely what we don’t remember that will form the kernel of our tale, imparting to it its grain of truth and transforming memories into mythology.

Roy-Bhattacharya talks at some length about this in an interview on Alma’s website.

Hassan sits us down, pours us some mint tea to accompany his narration – they have their traditions of hospitality; there are ways in which things must be done – and then he begins but as he tells his tale he is interrupted again and again and then again by people sitting on the ground before him: “No, that is not how things were.” Now that might faze any other storyteller but not Hassan. He steps aside and lets each one who has something to say have his say. What is surprising is that, well, first of all there is very little to Hassan’s story, but, more importantly, that there could possibly be so many variations.

I am not a storyteller. I am a writer, a very different beast entirely, and yet, just as he is about to begin his tale proper, the appropriate amount of time being used to preamble, Hassan says something I can relate to:

I make this trip to Marrakesh every winter to escape the bitter cold of the highlands, the desert or the sea – depending on where I might be that year – but also because I am driven to come to terms with what happened that night, here on the Jemaa, when there was a scent of something amiss in the air, and this even before the two strangers made their first and, as it turned out, final appearance.

For I am haunted by them.

The square

The story is not merely an entertainment for his listeners. This story is for Hassan as much as it is for us. Through the telling of it he hopes to step a little closer to understanding what really happened that fateful night. That is his plan and yet so many obstacles stand in his way. He has an ulterior motive but it doesn’t stay secret very long. Only a few pages into the book he reveals:

I am driven by the need for truth… My brother is in prison for a crime he did not commit. I want to find out what put him there. It is a difficult task, I agree, but it isn’t impossible.

The story Hassan tells is a story within a story and there are stories told within that too. He tells us of a time, perhaps the previous time, when he set down his kilm [a woven rug] on the other side of the square from his usual pitch because the memories associated with that place are too painful, and begins telling his tale. A foreign couple, a beautiful Franco-American woman and her Indian partner, vanish from the square one evening some time earlier. Their bodies are never recovered and the reports of their disappearance are, to say the least, contradictory. For example, Hassan’s friend, Aziz, “a waiter in the restaurant of the Riad Dar Timtam, in the heart of the medina,” describes the couple as follows:

As they hesitated on the threshold, casting long shadows, I hurried forward to greet them. At once I sensed something different about them. The girl was a gazelle, slender, small-boned, with large, dark eyes, and considerably shorter than her companion. She did all the speaking, accompanying her words with graceful gestures and appearing to anticipate perfectly his wishes. The boy was darker, his skin the colour of shadows cast on sand. He reminded me of an Arab nobleman, tall, with thin limbs and black hair, with something in his erect carriage that suggested otherworldliness.

Aziz has already gone some way with his imagination and, after seeing they have water, persuades another waiter to attend to the rest of their needs. His reason?

They chose an especially dark spot in the corner – they seemed to gravitate towards darkness. I brought them water, and when they looked at me, their eyes shone like candles. That disconcerted me, and when the slender youth asked me a question, I couldn’t meet his gaze. His companion’s eyes had the equally unnerving quality of seeming to rest on me and on something else at the same time. That was when it occurred to me, with a kind of guarded premonition, that Death had entered the Riad in the guise of that beautiful youth and maiden.

Hassan, himself, only saw two foreigners, tourists most likely, when they “emerged into the open space of the Jemaa from the direction of the Rue Derb Dabachi,” but the one thing that is clearest in his mind was the woman’s beauty:

All eyes, including mine, swivelled in their direction. The more modest amongst us immediately cast down our glances, as if abashed. Others, more bold, continued to stare and to follow them hungrily with brazen eyes.


Perhaps it had to do with the woman’s beauty, which was the first thing that everyone noticed. It was unnatural, and it made us uneasy. It seemed to cast a glow as they made their way across the square, and, as if in homage, the crowds fell silent and parted before them.

PeriNot all agree. Mohamed describes “the most wondrous woman [he] had ever seen. She was like a houri of legend, an angel, a peri. I drank in her luminous eyes, her black mane, her flowing limbs, her smile as fluid as a ripple of wind.” (The eight-page glossary at the end of the book describes houri as: “The extraordinarily beautiful women who exist only in Jannat (paradise) in the afterlife” and a peri is “a fairy; a beautiful or graceful being.”) “Tuareg, one of the ‘blue men’ from the south, his hands and face dyed from years of wearing the indigo weave,” was less impressed with the woman than he was with the “beautiful youth accompanying her [who] wore the face of tragedy.” Youssef, the middle son of one of the orange merchants, reduced all previous descriptions to nothing describing a fairly non-descript pair, she “wearing faded blue jeans, flip-flops and a white T-shirt with ‘I NY’ printed on the front … They were both grimy and sweat-stained … he was skinny and looked constipated, to be quite frank, while she was pretty in a cheap, fraudulent way, with the kind of make-up that can turn even unattractive women into mysterious, desirable women.” At this point in the story the couple’s attention is focused on how little money they appear to have left, others recount them spending money on trinkets without hardly any haggling. At some point in the subsequent retellings the man loses his rimless glasses and acquires a red beard; she suddenly becomes taller than him and puts on weight, both of which she subsequently loses again, before changing eye-colour and hair colour – her dark eyes become blue and she is now blonde, then both are dark again – and her touristy clothes transform into “traditional garb: black headscarf, ochre jelllaba, brown seroual,” but her name, Lucia (which means light), sticks.

Do we speak the truth, [asks Hassan], or do various, often incompatible versions of the truth speak through us? Especially here, in the Jemaa, where what matters at any given moment is only that which is most significant? That which holds the attention. That which convinces. Now, and for the next several hours or years.

Not only are there interruptions (a few more that I would have liked) but there are also digressions. We discover what led Hassan to become a storyteller and why his two brothers, the romantic, Mustafa, and the more practical, Ahmed, chose different occupations rather than following in their father’s footsteps. These are not simply examples of Hassan getting on a bit and allowing his mind to wander; everything is interconnected. “Perhaps only a single thread separates us from the truth,” he declares, “or perhaps an entire ream, but we will know for certain only when we look at the whole weave.” Ahmed was not there the night the couple decided to brave the square at night but Mustafa was (although he is unable to tell his version of what went on that night because he is in prison) and so Hassan has to stand in for him. See what I mean: stories within stories within stories. The problem is Mustafa’s own version of what went on that night is not entirely reliable because of certain assumptions he has made.

So what happened? Did the woman vanish that night or the man and did the other return year after year to wander the medina looking for them? Or did they both vanish into the night aided and abetted by a mysterious third party, to start a life anew away from prying eyes? Did the past finally catch up with them or were they merely the victims of local villains? If you like your stories explained for you in the final chapter whilst the characters loll around in a cosy drawing room then think again. That was never going to happen here.

The thing is though, at its core this novel is about love, in particular about one of the most powerful manifestations of love, self-sacrifice. There are numerous loves described in this book: the love of a father for his sons, of a man for his wife, of brother for brother, the love of one’s heritage, unrequited love and, of course, the love of a good story. When instructing his son who is about to take over his father’s job as a professional storyteller, Hassan’s father outlines four rules:

First, always remember that either a story carries love and mystery, or it carries nothing. Second, outside of the broad themes determined by the story sticks, the trick is to make up everything out of a whole cloth. Third, a story must not have a clean resolution. That way you will keep your audience coming back for more. Finally – and this is the most important thing – our craft demands discipline and hard work: a fertile imagination is not enough.

Years later this is what Hassan has to say on love:

Look: there it goes, soundless, tremulous, a few timid glances, a frustrated gesture, a poem about kif, an evening’s worth of delirium, and then, nothing.

It is love. It has five senses, seven sounds, nine skins, eleven illusions. It is soft. It is a flower that grows in the deepest oceans. It is a flickering candle, a sign in the snow, a beautiful country, desert ash. It is a call and a curse and a long-drawn-out incantation to be chanted in the evening. It is a photograph, a lament, a chronicle, a painting. It is Pandora’s box, in a sunlit park, in the Crow Tree. It is elation, confusion, loneliness, loss, dream. It is love.

Hassan’s story adheres to all the rules laid down by his father although it is perhaps the third rule that has disappointed most western reviewers. Is there a moment within the text when we manage to grasp the truth? I’d like to think so. I certainly know what I think happened that night; it is a truth that satisfies me and can we ask more from any truth? I don’t believe that the woman is the Jemaa el Fna personified, some kind of djinn, but if she were could not all the accounts contained within this storyline be true?

I’ve heard reviewers when talking about Woody Allen’s film Manhattan talk about the city as an actual character in the film:

[T]he film’s real shining star is Manhattan. Allen’s camera work and a fitting Gershwin soundtrack bring life and exuberance to this New York City borough, which becomes a central character in the film. –

and several reviewers of The Storyteller of Marrakesh talk in very similar terms about the Jemaa el Fna. I’m not generally fond of colourful descriptions but Roy-Bhattacharya’s descriptions don’t contain merely colour; they pander to all five senses. Only in a place like Marrakesh could you get away with language so rich.

The Storyteller Of Marrakesh was inspired by the author’s first visit to Morocco, a visit during which he “fell passionately in love with the Maghreb.” In his words, “It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I have seldom been to a part of the world where the arts are so much in the forefront of daily existence—and it opened the doorway to my conceiving of a cycle of novels that could articulate that passion.” … [T]here was something about Morocco that struck the deepest of chords with him, and as he spent more time in “this familiar but also strangely unfamiliar place”, it helped him “rediscover, in a way, the enormously rich and diverse heritage of our world, in a voyage of the senses accentuated by the wild physical beauty of the land.” –

Although set in a Muslim world, unlike The Good Muslim, which I read a few months back, this is not a religious tract by any manner of means; the author is not a Muslim. It is, however, as he puts it, “a reminder of what’s being lost, a commemoration, and a call to arms to save that tradition.” Orality is not something unique to Morocco.

When was the last time you were read a story? I don’t mean the last time you read a book but the last time you shut your eyes and were read to. This book has that feel about it. You don’t feel that you are reading, you feel like you are being told a story and that is quite an achievement. Not all readers loved this book as much as I did. Their explanations are reasonable: the meandering nature of the work got to some, the seemingly constant digressions, its peculiarly eastern take on philosophy, the open-ended conclusion – all valid points. On Goodreads when I checked there were 97 reviews and their star-ratings are across the board; the dozen one-star reviews completely floored me though. I never expected to see that.

I don’t give star ratings and I’m not going to start. What I will say is that this book was, for me, a refreshing read. I delighted in the subject matter and in the author’s approach to it. It was an absolute pleasure to read and all I can say to anyone who buys a copy of this book on my recommendation and doesn’t love it is that they should put the book aside and try it again in maybe ten years; it won’t have dated and maybe by then you’ll be ready for it.

You can read a lengthy excerpt from the book here and there is an hour-long video of Roy-Bhattacharya talking about the book and reading from it here. I also enjoyed his appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show which was most illuminating.


Roy_BhattacharyJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was born in Jamshedpur, India, and educated in philosophy and politics. He lives in New York. His first novel, The Gabriel Club, was published in eight languages in sixteen countries. The Storyteller of Marrakesh is the first of what he refers to as a cycle of novels – the second will be set in Baghdad, the third in Isfahan – intended to illuminate middle eastern culture. His next book, The Watch, will be published in 2012.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Aggie and Shuggie 32





Whit, hen?


Are we real?


Are we whit?




[feels himself over] Aye, hen, as far as Ah cun tell.


Tha’s no whit Ah mean. How’d we know we’re no the figment o sumwan’s imagination?


Like Goad?




Wull, aw Ah cun say is if sumwan immaginified me Goad help ‘im.


Yoor no takin me seriously.


Ah am. It’s jist Ah wis never much cop when it came to apisstomology. Ah aywis thought it were sumhim tae dae wi hinkin aboot bevvy.


Ye mean ontology?


Aye, that tae.


Ontology is the philosophical study o the nature o being. Epistemology is more boathered wi the nature an scope o knowledge an at.


Ah know that. Did ye hink Ah came up the Clyde oan a banana boat? Ah wis jist yanking yer chain. Cun ye no take a wee joke. Christ, weans these days.




La Te Doh.


Ah’m aff tae see Ma. She’ll take me seriously.


No, cum oan. Dinnae be like that. Ah cun be serious. Whit’s goat ye hinkin aboot the nature af reality then? An is it fanomanologicul reality, virchool reality, awternate reality or jist plain ol’ common or garden reality?


Metaphysical reality.


Oh, right. Ah forgoat aboot that wan. Right, Ah’m aw ears.


It’s jist in Unca Jim’s new book…


Whoa! Hawd yer horses, lassie. Oor Jim’s goat a new book oot?


Aye. There’s a refyoo up oan Dave King’s bloag? Ah thought you read his bloag.


On occashun, yes, Ah huff bin known tae parooze it. So whit’s oor Jim’s new book cawd?


Milligan and Murphy.


Zat right?


Aye. An it’s aboot these two blokes who Ah hink arny real. They’re jist imaginary.


They’re in a book, hen. Everywan in a book is imaginary. It’s a rule.


Ah know that. But I hink these two huff cottoned oan tae the fact that they’re no real.


An tha’s why yoo wis wunnerin if perchance we wis aw jist made up.


Aye. How’d we know?


Ah huff nae idea, hen. Noat a Scoobies.


Ah knew Ah shudda asked ma ma aboot this.


Aye, perhaps ye shudda.


Yoor no real.


Neffer a truer word said, hen.

Friday 20 January 2012

Chronicle in Stone

Chronicle in Stone

I could not understand how people could not like something as beautiful as the aerodrome. But I had lately become convinced that in general people were pretty boring. ― Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone

Childhood is a wonderful place, part battleground, part playground. It is like a parallel universe that occupies the same time and space as the adult world and yet exists independently to it. Childhood is a popular subject for writers particularly their own childhoods. Of course it helps to have lived through interesting times. When I look back to me growing up in the sixties or, to be more accurate, when I look back at what the history books tell me was happening during the sixties, it’s clear I lived through some most interesting times, but most of what was going on in the world passed me by. If it didn’t happen in my street then it might as well have not been happening at all; I was the centre of the universe after all.

Thousands upon thousands of children grew up during the Second World War and many have written about their experiences. Two that jump to mind are John Boorman’s script for Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard which, of course, was also turned into a film. They present very different accounts of the war, the first set in England, the second in Shanghai. Ismail Kadare’s early semi-autobiographical novel, Chronicle in Stone, presents a different snapshot again, set this time in Albania but childhood is still childhood the world over.

The child in question here is a young boy from the museum-city of Gjirokastër which is where Kadare was born; in his case, in January 1936. It is an old city. The city's walls date from the 3rd century AD; the Citadel, which features in the novel, was built from the 6th to the 12th century which means that the house Kadare was brought up in, which was built in 1677, is positively modern by comparison:

Typical houses consist of a tall stone block structure which can be up to five stories high. There are external and internal staircases that surround the house. It is thought that such design stems from fortified country houses typical in southern Albania. The lower storey of the building contains a cistern and the stable. The upper storey is composed of a guest room and a family room containing a fireplace. Further upper stories are to accommodate extended families and are connected by internal stairs.

Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "City of Stone", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with stones. – Wikipedia

The kullë houses which characterise the city each contain approximately three million stones. – Preservation Journey


Albania is not, however, a new country. It was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1418, as part of the Rumelia province, and it remained peacefully under Ottoman control until 1870 when the Albanian National Awakening, as it came to be known, took place followed by several years of bloodshed until, in 1912, the first independent Albanian state was declared. The only other book I’ve read by Kadare is his retelling of The Ghost Rider and one of the things that struck me when I researched my article on it was how passionately nationalistic the Albanians were. I didn’t get the same feeling from this book, presumably because we have a child as a narrator; at one point he doesn’t even seem aware that his country is called Albania which is odd because the boy clearly knows his countries and there is a lovely scene early in the book where the way Kadare sets it up you’re not sure if this isn’t the gods haggling over control of the world:

“OK, you can have France and Canada, but give me Luxembourg.”

“You’re kidding! You really want Luxembourg?”

“If it’s all right with you.”

“Well, give me Abyssinia for two Polands, and we could do a deal.”

“No, not Abyssinia. Take France and Canada for two Polands.”

“No way!”

“All right, then, give me back the India I gave you yesterday for Venezuela.”

“India? Here, it’s yours. What do you want with India anyway? To tell you the truth, I changed my mind about it last night.”

“Did you change your mind about Turkey, too, by any chance?”

“I sold Turkey already. Otherwise, I’d give it back to you.”

“In that case you don’t get the Germany I promised you yesterday. I’d rather tear it up.”

“Big deal. You think I care?”

We had been haggling for an hour, sitting in the middle of the street trading stamps. We were still arguing when Javer came by. He said, “Still carving up the world, I see.”

You would think nothing of this scene but the irony comes when you realise that this is taking place in 1940 in a city under the control of the Italian military, not that they stay in charge for terribly long. Over the course of the book – which covers about four years – the city changes hands numerous times: first the Greeks, then the Italians again, then the Greeks, then the Italians and this swapping back and forth lasts until Italy capitulates to the Allies in September 1943, whereupon the Germans troops march into the country. Gjirokastër with its castle was an important strategic target which is why over the past few years it had been regularly bombed by the aircraft belonging to whoever wasn’t currently occupying the city.


For the young narrator his city is alive; it has a personality and moods. At one point, late in the book, he writes:

At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as a part of the German empire. Utterly exhausted, dazed by the battle, it showed no sign of life.

It does not die though. In the single-page chapter which completes the novel we hear from the boy who has returned as an adult:

A very long time later I came back to the grey immemorial city. My feet timidly trod the spine of its stone-paved streets. They bore me up. You recognised me, you stones.


My streets, my cistern. My old house. Its beams, floorboards and staircase creaked slightly, almost imperceptibly, with a dry, uniform, almost constant cracking sound. What’s wrong? Where does it hurt? It seemed to be complaining of aches in its bones, in its centuries-old joints.


[A]t street corners, where walls join, I thought I could see some familiar features, like outlines of human faces, the shadows of cheekbones and eyebrows. They are really there, caught in stone for all time, along with the marks left by earthquakes, winters and scourges wrought by men.

Who is it he thinks he sees? Grandmother Selfixhe, Xhexho, Aunt Xhemo, Mane Voco, Nazo, frail Kako Pino with her persistent war cry, “It’s the end of the world,” Llukan, the Jailbird – never long out of prison and, more often than not, glad to be back there and others like Ҫeҫo Kailil’s daughter who grew a beard, now, all now gone; the humans have gone, but their humanity remains. These are his family – family is important to him, central to his life – his neighbours, who are also a constant feature in this tight knit community, and his friends with whom he trades stamps and plans the kind of mischief that boys of all nationalities get up to.

Hope and GloryChildren view the world differently from adults, partly due to lack of experience, often due to lack of information: if only adults would speak up. There is a wonderful scene at the end of the film Hope and Glory where, Bill, the nine-year-old protagonist arrives at his school to discover that all classes have been cancelled because the school has been damaged in the Blitz, whereupon the boy joyously cries to the sky, “Thank you, Hitler.” To him and his peers, the Blitz is exciting, even fun, as they collect shrapnel, play with live ammo, and muck about on bombsites. And although he’s living under almost constant enemy occupation, the young narrator – we never find out his exact age – acts in much the same way: where his knowledge and experience fail him, his imagination does not:

A neighbour is seen as Lady Macbeth, whereas a cabbage in the market takes the form of a severed head. Passing troops become Crusaders until the lad and his friends grow up to join a band of partisans, and the world of childhood fantasy gives way to that of our often savage maturity. – Robert Elsie, Albanian Literature: A Short History, p.171

In a recent article in The Daily Beast Kadare recalls his most recent visit to his hometown:

My most recent visit was a year ago. I went to see my old house, on a narrow street known as “Lunatics’ Lane.” Surely only a city with a sense of itself as superior could give such a name to one of its own streets. A house on the other side once belonged to the former dictator of Albania. As I walked along the lane, I saw an aged sculptor. He called out to me from a distance: “This street has produced three famous lunatics. Two of them, the dictator [Enver Hoxha]and you, left long ago. I’m the third, and I really am mad. I stayed here. And I’m proud of it.”

The old sculptor would have fit well in the pages of Chronicle in Stone; few of the characters contained therein are mad but some are exceedingly eccentric like the inventor, Dino Ҫiҫo, who is trying to design an aeroplane which will be powered by some kind of perpetual motion device and who, when the people are fleeing the city as the German army approaches, insists on carrying his model prototype on his back in case it falls into enemy hands; white, wooden, about the size of a man, the image of Jesus trudging up the hill to Golgotha is a hard one to avoid thinking about.

This is a simple and intimate novel more about childhood than the history that was unfolding around the boy in question.

Early on in the book the Italians build an aerodrome and as the planes arrive, these fire the boy’s imagination in much the same way that Jim in Empire of the Sun becomes obsessed with them:

Jim felt feverish, but he watched the Japanese planes overhead. The sound of their engines cleared his mind. Whenever his spirits flagged or he felt sorry for himself he thought of the silver aircraft he had seen at the detention centre. – Empire of the Sun

This is what our young Albanian has to say on the subject of the new aerodrome:

I was bewitched. … I knew everything that went on there. I could tell the difference between the heavy bombers and the light, and between the bombers and the fighters. Every morning I counted the planes, and watched the take-offs, flights and landings. I soon figured out that the bombers never went up by themselves, but were always escorted by fighters. I had given names to some planes that stood out from the rest, and I had some favourites. Whenever I saw some bomber take off with its fighter escort and disappear into the depths of the valley to the south, where they said the war was going on, I kept careful track and waited for it to come back. I worried when one of my favourites was late, and was filled with joy when I heard the humming of engines in the valley announcing its return. Some never came back. I would be sorry for a while, but eventually forgot about it.

But he is spellbound by one plane in particular:

I forgot all about its colleagues, which looked dwarfed beside it, and welcomed it warmly. Earth and sky together could not have sent me a more beautiful gift than this gigantic plane. It became my best friend. It was my very own flying and roaring machine that put death at my command.

I thought about it all the time. I felt proud to see it take off with a rumble that shook the world and that it alone could make, and to watch it turn slowly south. […] It always seemed to me that it stayed too long down there in the south. I thought I could hear it breathe heavily on its return. It seemed exhausted. At times like that I would wish it would never fly south again where they were fighting. The others are younger, let them go, I thought. The big one needed some rest.

The giant plane may well have become his best friend, but it wasn’t his first love. This task fell to a woman by the name of Margarita, a lodger in his grandfather’s house who gives him a little attention and thats all a boy his age needs. He tells his friend Ilir about her:

“At Grandfather’s, there’s now a beautiful married woman,” I told him.

He wasn’t impressed and didn’t answer. A little later I mentioned Margarita to him again. Again he showed no interest, and only asked me, “Does she have pink cheeks?”

“Yes,” I answered, somewhat perplexed. “Pink.”

slingshotThe third time he broaches the subject Ilir tells him that the night previous he’d stolen his mother’s garters to make into a slingshot and wonders if our narrator will keep hold of them for a few days in case she finds them. Clearly Ilir hasn’t reached a point where the sight of a woman’s garter sparks off anything deeper than considering its functionality as part of homemade weaponry. He has only just discovered that “the world is round like a melon” – any kind of appreciation for womankind is still a while off. The matter of Margarita does not crop up as a subject for conversation again.

On his next trip to visit his grandparents the boy cannot hide his real interest:

“Where’s Margarita?” I asked Grandma, who was kneading dough for bread rolls.

“What do you want with Margarita?” she asked. “You’d do better to start by asking how Grandfather is, or your aunts and uncles, instead of starting right out with ‘Where’s Margarita?’”

The old woman is perceptive though. She can see he has a crush but holds back from teasing him about it. Later that day when Margarita hasn’t appeared he goes into the attic to try and spy on her – only to see if she’s there – and is rewarded with the sight of his first naked woman fresh from her bath. His infatuation with her doesn’t last too long though. He’s not caught, rather she is; stealing, and shortly after this bit of innocent voyeurism he arrives to discover she has been asked to leave.

This leaves a gaping hole in his life but not for long. Suzana, the daughter of his grandfather’s only neighbour, who he has known for years, steps in to fill the gap, but before their pubescent romance can find its feet, her mother discovers them and that puts an end to that. No more women for the boy; just relatives, nuns, prostitutes and crones, especially old crones like Granny Neslihan who, following one terrible night of bombing that left sixty-two dead, is found in the rubble, buried up to her waist:

She didn’t understand what had happened to her. Waving her long arms in the air she cried, “Who killed me?” She was 142 years old. And blind.

Others are also as old and many have never left their homes in decades, Not so the katenxhikas [“the mothers-in-law”] flooding down the streets and alleys running up and down the streets, their black scarves fluttering behind them, as they spread their own unique mixtures of news: “out of breath and full of gossip.” You know that times are bad when they appear en masse like this. It is with their arrival that we see the first appearance of another far more important character in the boy’s life, the writer within:

A cold, dry wind blew steadily down from the mountain passes to the north. I listened to its uniform howl, and for some reason the expression “words are gone with the wind” went round and round in my head. Something strange was happening to me lately. Everyday words or expressions, things I had heard dozen of times, were suddenly taking on new meanings in my mind. The words were casting off their usual idiomatic sense. Expressions made up of two or three words would painfully fall apart. If I heard someone say, “My head is boiling,” despite myself I couldn’t help imagining a head boiling like a pot of beans. Words have a certain force in their normal state. But now, as they began to shear and crack up, they acquired amazing energy. I was afraid they would explode.


I had entered the kingdom of words, where a merciless tyranny reigned. […] The world was falling apart before my very eyes. Surely that was what Kako Pino meant when she said, as she never stopped saying, “It’s the end of the world.”

There is much more I could talk about: his visit to the slaughterhouse; the defeated troops filing though the city begging for bread; the young lover who searches the cities cellars looking for his Eurydice; the anti-aircraft gun that seemed incapable of even winging a single enemy plane; the statue that got shot and the return of the giant plane, only as aggressor this time. I wonder a little about where Kadare chose to end this narrative, because it doesn’t really end; he simply decides on a point to stop and that’s where he stops, tagging on the single short chapter, almost as an afterthought, showing him as an adult.

I have to say I enjoyed this book. I’m not someone who gets especially nostalgic about his own childhood but I do find the subject of loss of innocence a captivating one. Innocence is like this odd little creature that scrabbles around trying to make sense of its environment before it becomes aware and disillusioned. Kadare never takes it that far here. Even when the narrator as an adult is introduced you still feel that they boy who scampered around that magical city and called, “A-oo,” into the cistern waiting on it calling back, however reluctantly, is still there inside him. There are things that happen to the people around the boy that upset him – he sees dead bodies but I don’t think he actually witnesses anyone being killed – and these affect him but he still clings onto who he sees himself to be, even though he cannot not change. I think had he been even three years older when the occupation started, the book might have had a very different tone.

As I’ve said already this is the second book by Kadare I’ve read but I’m not sure I’ve read the best of him yet; the man has been nominated for the Nobel Prize fifteen times for Christ’s sake. The Ghost Rider was a retelling of another’s tale and this is essentially a memoir, albeit a fictionalised, entertaining and well-written one. I must look out for something else by him, perhaps Agamemnon’s Daughter; in his article in The New Yorker James Wood, who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to the Canongate edition of Chronicle of Stone I’ve just read, suggests that as his greatest achievement. Plus, it’s a novella – always a selling point as far as I’m concerned.

You can sample the book here. This is not the Canongate edition but the translation is the same.


ismailkadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid 1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Milligan and Murphy

bc_milligan_tnOver the past few years regular readers will have heard me mention and sometimes even quote from my unpublished novels. I finished Milligan and Murphy in August 2005 about three years after my play Vladimir and Estragon are Dead. I had kind of thought that after writing that I’d put my fascination with all things Beckettian to bed, but apparently not. The book was written in the two years we were living in an unfurnished flat in the Gorbals. You can actually see the flats in the photo below. They were brand new and we were the first occupants. It was a nice flat. We could actually see teams of rowers skooshing up and down the Clyde from our window. To get to work in the morning all I had to do was walk over the St Andrew’s suspension bridge, trudge across Glasgow Green and get a bus on London Road for the town centre; by Glaswegian standards, idyllic. Carrie and I didn’t have our own offices at this point and so the living room was subdivided into two office spaces and a TV-watching area. It sounds crowded but it was a big room and everything worked out just fine.

We were both working then—actually only a few blocks from each other—but we kept different hours. I’ve always been an early bird and so I was up and out the door at the back of six every morning and settled at my desk with my second coffee of the morning by seven, giving me the place to myself for a good hour and a half; to compensate for the early start I got to leave an hour early too. Things were very comfortable. We had no debts, money to burn and really the last thing I expected to be doing under such circumstances was writing, but those two years were exceptionally productive and, despite the fact the flat was a tad on the small side, a part of me regrets not just buying the damn place.

Anyway, one morning I got up, carried out my ablutions, dressed, prepared my lunch, stuck on my hat and coat and headed off to work. It was a day like any other day. Probably wasn’t even a Tuesday. (If you’ve read my first novel you’ll get the joke.) As I crossed the footbridge, out of nowhere—okay, not exactly out of nowhere, out of the dark recesses of my mind—came the following sentence:

Milligan and Murphy were brothers.

I had no idea who they were or anything like that or how they could have different surnames and still be brothers or imagine they were brothers. I certainly had no idea who was doing the talking. No, all I had were those five words. By the time I'd crossed Glasgow Green I had a paragraph but I was still none the wiser. The thing was—and let every writer out there heed this warning—I had neither pen nor paper on me at the time (rare for me, but true) and so I had to keep that paragraph in my head for the next half-hour until I got into the office, grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled it down before I lost it. Granted, the paragraph was not as long as it ended up in the book but it was still a load of words to try and keep straight in my head. I wrote the words down and then got on with my day job.

bridge1St Andrew’s suspension bridge

When I got home I typed them up and did nothing more. At this point I knew two things:

  1. This piece of writing was going to be called Milligan and Murphy
  2. This was going to be a novel

I did nothing more for, as best I can remember, about a fortnight. Now, I know a novel is not like a rare gemstone but I felt like I was poised to split a diamond and terrified that I was going to mishit the thing and it was going to shatter into a thousand unusable pieces; into diamond dust. "The tale is told of Joseph Asscher, the greatest cleaver of the day, that when he prepared to cleave the largest diamond ever known, the 3,106 carats (621g) Cullinan, he had a doctor and nurse standing by and when he finally struck the diamond and it broke perfectly in two, he fainted dead away."[1] It’s pure myth but that best describes how I felt: everything depended on what I was to write next.

So I waited and I waited and I waited. I kept spinning the words I had written so far in my head and gradually an idea emerged. Of course no sooner had it emerged than I pooh-poohed it, but it wouldn’t go away. And when you have an idea like that, in my experience you have but one option: write the damn thing out.

I have never really bonded with Samuel Beckett’s novella, Mercier and Camier. I can see Vladimir and Estragon evolving (devolving?) into Hamm and Clov, but a younger Didi and Gogo would be like the younger Krapp, more positive as well as more naïve. It would be a lie to say that I’d always wanted to rewrite Mercier and Camier because no such thought had ever crossed my mind, but the idea of a Vladimir and Estragon: The Early Days did, I have to say, appeal. I’d already imagined them dead and in some kind of limbotic state so why not go the other way? And so that’s what I did—sort of.

The question I kept finding myself asking was: What caused Didi and Gogo to become tramps in the first place? No one is born a tramp and yet, somewhere along the line, the wanderlust takes a hold of certain people. What would cause someone to one day up and leave everything and turn into homo peripateticus, aimlessly wandering the roads? There are plenty of recorded cases of men who have, for no apparent reason, abandoned their lives and been discovered, often hundreds of miles away, living completely different lives and unaware of what they’ve done, but there are more who, to escape what’s going on at home, simply run away. Is that what happened to them?

Beckett was insistent that all he knew about his characters was what was written on the page. He once recalled when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters."[2] So I was going to get no help there and the text says little about where they had been prior to ending up where they are. For example, Vladimir insists that they were employed as grape pickers in the Mâcon country— Mâcon is the name for the red and white wines which come from the Mâconnais section of Burgundy, France. This region is the most southerly in Burgundy, and also the largest—but Estragon is having none of it, although he doesn’t deny seeing the Eiffel Tower. Whether they are still in France when they have this conversation is another thing entirely.

It is said that every generation has its own Shakespeare and I suspect that the same will apply to Beckett. Whether Shakespeare in modern dress dilutes the quality of the writing or Waiting for Godot performed by an all-female cast somehow sullies the work, I’m not going to debate, but as generation follows generation, people find they can relate to these plays in new and unexpected ways. The more I thought about it the more I realised I was more interested in Didi and Gogo: The Next Generation than trying to imagine younger versions of these much-loved characters.

When is Waiting for Godot set? Clearly after 1889, because that’s when the Eiffel Tower was constructed, but other than that there’s little in the way of clues. Bishop Berkeley, one of the few actual people mentioned in Lucky’s tirade, died in 1753 so that’s no help. In 1875 Charles Peterson walked into the Kapp brothers’ elegant Dublin tobacconists and declared he could make pipes better than the ones they were selling, so it must have been after this date that Pozzo purchased his Kapp and Peterson. The most helpful reference, assuming this is what he is referring to, comes from Lucky when he babbles on about the “skull in Connemara” because in 1947 a Connemara farmer found a fully intact skeleton clad in Viking armour. This was, however, a change made to the French original (which talks about la tête en Normandie).

It’s not important but if there's one thing Beckett scholars love to do is scratch around in the dirt for details like this. The other people who love poking around for such trivia are readers of historical fiction. When Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot the discovery of the skull in Connemara was news; because time has marched on, one can forget that.

jimsdesk_0059Me at work in the Gorbals

So, was I going to make my protagonists twenty-first century vagabonds? I have to say the thought never crossed my mind. Despite slipping in the odd detail as mentioned already, there is nothing in Waiting for Godot to really pinpoint where or when it is set. There are those who would argue that the action takes place in the Wicklow hills and their arguments do have a certain validity, but it’s not important. There are those who point to every tree in Mercier and Camier and say that it prefigures the tree in Waiting for Godot, despite the fact that the man himself said he based the set of Godot on Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Observing the Moon—not that we always trust what Beckett has to say.

Once I finally started writing those opening few pages to Milligan and Murphy one thing became clear: it was set sometime in the past. In my head the timeframe is the mid-nineteen-thirties and, as with Beckett, there are a few cultural references to draw on, if you’re keen to pin it down. Firstly, there is a scene where one of the characters talks about being in a mental hospital. The 1930 Mental Treatment Act modernised many terms: asylums became known as mental hospitals and so the book has to be set after this date. Secondly, one of the ships mentioned at the end of the novel is the Homeric which was built for North German Lloyd in 1913 and named Columbus. Construction was halted until 1914 due to the World War and the ship ceded to Britain in 1919 where it was sold to White Star and Dominion Lines and renamed Homeric. Its route was Southampton-New York and it was scrapped in Scotland in 1936. So, mid-nineteen-thirties.

This is, of course, assuming that the action is set in the real world. Just as Beckett never mentions Dublin by name, nowhere in my book does it say that the setting is the Irish Free State (as Ireland was between 1922 and 1937). None of the towns mentioned will be found on any map, although the town from which Milligan and Murphy hail, Lissoy, is the old name for Auburn in County Westmeath which sits in the middle of the island. The original Irish name for the village was Lissoy, i.e. Lios Uaimhe, fort of the cave.

Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed.

It is a Tuesday. All my novels begin on a Tuesday. They also all feature protagonists whose names begin with the letter j: Jonathan Payne (Living with the Truth, Stranger than Fiction), James Henry Valentine (The More Things Change) and Jennifer Wilson (Left). The same is true here:

Murphy’s given name was John. As circumstance would have it this was to be his half-brother's also. Milligan’s paternal grandfather, whilst making the most of his deathbed, had compelled his son to swear an oath. The rotten old man had made the boy give his word that he would not break with family tradition in this particular regard and so, albeit years later, after some pointless-but-necessary debate with his new wife, Milligan’s father had taken the required legal steps to have his firstborn son registered with the appropriate authorities: John Milligan. From that day forth the two boys went by their surnames. Surprisingly they were close, though not joined at the hip.

Mercier and Camier look like Laurel and Hardy. I preferred to go down the Tweedledum and Tweedledee route:

Both took after their mother in appearance if in no other way: all three of them were short, stout, snub-nosed and sleepy-eyed, more like lost puppies than evil dwarves, it must be said.

Needless to say I am not the first to see a correlation between Lewis Carroll and Beckett:

Tweedledee and Tweedledum are not far from tramps and prefigure their modern counterparts Estragon and Vladimir or Clov and Hamm. Their verbal exchange only points to the difficulty of codifying possible meanings and, like Beckett’s characters, they seem to have no society, no history, no occupation, no real personality or identity except their names, and are very dependent on each other, which mutual dependence only helps to generate incomprehensibility and indeterminacy.[3]

But what of my opening line? Clearly they are not brothers. No, but that isn’t important to them. This is how that opening paragraph developed:

Milligan and Murphy were brothers. They introduced themselves to the world as such and such was the blatant straightfacedness that accompanied this assertion that few felt remotely inclined to press the matter further. As it happens there was sufficient physical similarity between the two men to win over even the most sceptical of individuals. That said, most people had enough things to worry about without losing any sleep over the likes of these two. Needless to say, they weren't actually brothers. No. For the record they were half-brothers; each had been dragged screaming from the innards of the same mother though a different father had been guilty for them winding up there.

They are, its fair to say, very alike, a fact my beta readers picked up on, but it is deliberate. There are differences: Milligan is quick tempered and impatient and likes to be told stories before going to sleep; Murphy is the more serious of the two, he smokes a pipe, has a decent singing voice and has a tendency to interfere with himself when no one’s looking. Both are lazy, fond of the drink when they can afford it and not especially bright.

DCP_0015The outside of the flat

So what is Milligan and Murphy about? As we’ve seen with Beckett a great deal of his work concerns the fact that people are not in control of their lives. There are, for want of a better expression, other forces at play. This is probably shown clearest in the mime Act Without Words I where a man in a desert is tormented by an unseen party who lowers items, some of which he can reach, others of which he has to work to reach (by stacking cubes) and still others that are whisked out of his reach. Milligan and Murphy are instructed by their mother to go looking for work. On the way there, after discovering a lucky penny, they encounter an old man who gets them to think about where they should be going before vanishing mysteriously without saying goodbye. A minor detail? Perhaps, but not if he was a pooka. We never find out the old man’s name but it’s not hard to work out who he appears to be:

They turned their backs on the man and found, much to their annoyance, that they had reached a road junction. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Why were they all of a sudden limping on two different opinions? They knew exactly which direction O’Connor’s farm was. This was not the first time they had been directed there.

As they mulled over their options, a voice was heard from behind them:

“Excuse me. Excuse me, gentlemen. Neither of you would happen to have a carrot about his person?” They turned as one and looked at the man who was now sitting on the ground dusting off his bowler, “Or a turnip. A turnip would be good too.”

Is this Gogo or the ghost of Gogo? I’m not saying. Or he might be a pooka pretending to be him—pookas never say goodbye. Suffice to say, the two find themselves, for the first time in their lives, heading off into the unknown. They wind up in Drumclaven and, after an encounter with a policeman who does little to make them feel welcome, they end up seeking sanctuary in “the local chapel of St. Brigid, the patron saint of travellers, fugitives, poets, scholars, chicken farmers, milk-maids and bastards” where the not-too-unkindly priest explains the point of the book:

“Gentlemen,” he began and then thought to soften his message, “Boys… lads… not everything in this life is reasonable. It is easier when you’re talking about good things and bad things. You murder a man in cold blood, for example, and then you think to yourself, Self, did I do a good thing or a bad thing? And your self says to you, ‘Look up Exodus Chapter Twenty,’ and you do and there it is in black and white. It’s a lot harder when it comes to reasonable and unreasonable things.

“You’ll have heard it said that everything happens for a reason. Well, poppycock! Simply because someone makes a statement like that doesn’t make it any truer than my insisting that the moon is made out of green cheese which it may or may not be; I have no empirical evidence either way. It is true, God has His grand plan—I have to believe that (it’s more than my job’s worth not to)—but it will come to fruition despite what we do not because of it. Make no mistake, we are all spanners in God’s works, you and I and everyone else. That’s what free will is all about.

“People do unreasonable things all the time—and by that I mean things for no good reason at all—and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place, they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did, however, the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan, if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”

“Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.

“Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being the fact.”

The emphases didn’t help.

“So did we sin or not, Father?” enquired a now more-confused-than-ever Milligan.

That… is for each of you to answer.”

With that he nodded to both men and headed off quickly towards the rectory leaving the two bewildered brothers standing there.

There are no reasons for unreasonable things. They want to know why they left but the fact is that, purely on the spur of the moment, for no good reason, bad reason or any ol’ reason. Now that they’ve left they have the problem of where to go. Beckett would have them go nowhere and end up back where they started from. I do things a little differently. I take them through a wee adventure, not a very taxing one, and settle them with the local ex-madwoman in Rathnerth who takes on the role of their mother and I could have left them there, but where would be the fun in that? Do they get to escape or does their author have something else in store for them? Mercier and Camier felt a presence, the author of their destiny, but what about Milligan and Murphy?

“Since we left home wouldn’t you say that, on the whole, we’ve landed lucky? Look where we’ve ended up after just a few days.”

“You’ve got a point. It must be that penny we found. Would you ever have credited that such a wee penny could have so much luck attached to it?”

“I don’t mean the penny. Don’t you feel as if someone’s looking after us?”

“Someone? You mean someone… up there?”


“I do not.”

“It stands to reason. God, or possibly one of the saints, maybe; if He’s too busy.”

“Murphy, how on earth do you think that you and I could possibly fit into God’s plans? We’re not great thinkers. We’re not great doers. There must be a million people lying in their beds right now who could do whatever He might need doing faster and better than you or I could hope to.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s not so important a job. Maybe He needs someone dispensable. We’re that and more.”

They are right, of course. Just like Puckoon’s Dan Milligan had his author looking out for him so, too, do Milligan and Murphy. Whereas Mercier and Camier’s journey was plagued by “a long line of maleficent beings” things actually go disconcertingly well for these two. But their journey is not without hitches. Who is the stranger astride his “sturdy black Raleigh 3-speed” in hot pursuit?

Pipex_0057My Beckett shelf as it was then (I have more now)

I never set out to rewrite Beckett, or to emulate him or even to do a Beckett Lite parody or pastiche, but I cannot pretend he wasn’t an influence and those who know his work well will doubtless be able to see that. If you know nothing about him, have never read anything by him and have never seen one of his plays, there is still a lot to enjoy here and, who knows, you might even enjoy it more.

If you want to know you’ll have to buy the ruddy thing; it’s available now from the FV Books site in paperback. An ebook version will follow in due course.

You can read the first chapter here and there are already two reviews online, one from John Baker and a second from Guy Fraser-Sampson.


[1] Matthew Hart, Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, p.204

[2] Samuel Beckett to Barney Rosset, 18 October 1954 (Syracuse). Quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, p 412

[3] Teke Charles Ngiewih, ‘From Carroll to Beckett: Retrospection and Prefiguring; The Romantic and (Post)Modern Context of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’, L'Observatoire Réunionnais des Arts, des Civilisations et des Littératures dans leur Environnement

I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Beckett's pseudo-couples (part two)


Mercier and CamierIn his book, Beckett Before Godot, John Pilling notes:

PJ Murphy has been one of the very few Beckett critics to see that Mercier et Camier suffers from what the Denis Devlin review calls 'the need that in its haste to be abolished cannot pause to be stated'. For a book so full of statement, indeed, Mercier et Camier seems oddly insubstantial, as if the 'haste to be abolished' had been more important than 'the predicament of particular human identity.'[1]

The English version certainly has a rushed feel about it. Scenes which other authors would have devoted an entire chapter to, Beckett shrugs off in a few sentences.

Mercier and Camier are trying to leave an unnamed city that can, nevertheless, be clearly identified as Dublin. After a while, they succeed in getting into the Wicklow mountains where they part company; at the end, they are both in the city again where they (for what we might imagine might be the last time) part company once more. So, as with Waiting for Godot and Endgame, the status quo is maintained. They are modelled on tramps—and, for much of the book their choice of conveyance is Shanks’ Pony, despite having a woman’s bicycle with them for much of the time which neither of them rides—but they are not tramps in the sense that they are not mendicant wanderers; Camier, we discover, is a private investigator but all we find out about Mercier is that he is a married man with children. They are never short of money to pay for cakes, sandwiches, drink, train fares or lodgings or, indeed, to offer a bribe.

We never learn where they are headed; it is unclear if they know themselves. They arrange to meet at Saint Ruth Square—“which in fact is not a square but a public garden in the centre of town”[2]— on St Macarius’ Day[3] but keep missing each other and so it takes time for the book to even get started. Mercier arrives first at 9:05, waits for five minutes and then sets out for a saunter which he expects to last fifteen minutes; in the meantime Camier appears at 9:15, dallies for five minutes and then decides he too would have a little stroll; returning to the spot at 9:25 and finding his travelling companion still not there. Mercier once again wanders off after five minutes, this time planning to be away a mere ten minutes. By 9:50 they finally manage to come face to face and hug each other—at which point “the rain began to fall, with quite oriental abruptness” and they have to head for cover which they found “in the form of a pagoda [which] had been erected … as a protection from the rain and other inclemencies.”

They remain there until page 21 (and two pages longer in the French original) whereupon they finally begin their journey proper. So, considering the book is only 123 pages long 17% of it is spent getting nowhere. This does not mean that their time in the pagoda is not entertaining: a pair of ‘locked-in’ copulating dogs provide the opening act followed quickly enough by the park ranger, a moustachioed, stiff-upper-lipped ex-military man, the first, as it turns out, “of a long line of maleficent beings” that they will encounter, who demands to know which of them owns a certain bicycle he has noticed propped up against the pagoda and which was doubtlessly flaunting some public ordinance or other. Despite the fact the bicycle is not theirs and clearly an encumbrance, they nevertheless leave with it and the items they arrived with, a sack, an umbrella and a raincoat.

But where to go next?

Where do our feet think they’re taking us? said Camier.

They would seem to be heading for the canal, said Mercier.


They do indeed follow the canal until it gets dark whereupon Camier proposes a libation despite the fact they had happened to swear off the demon drink some time before. They stop at the first pub but having been declined admission because of the bike (although it is unclear whether or not they actually tried to enter the pub with the contraption) they adjourn to the bar across the way where they take stock of their progress so far, compiling a list of ten items, the most important of which in the context of the book in general being #9: “Only one thing mattered: depart.” This is, of course, the thing that frustrates Didi and Gogo so, and Hamm also: the fervent desire to depart and their apparent inability to do so despite the fact nothing appears to be stopping them.

They do not depart. They find themselves at Helen’s. Who precisely Helen is is hard to tell. She has only been mentioned briefly once before when Camier, trying to prove at what hour the two men had in fact agreed to meet, had read from his notebook and reported he was to collect an umbrella from Helen’s, which he must have done some time earlier because he has the very item when they leave the pagoda. The events that take place at Helen’s are covered in just over a page of the book, thirty-six lines in total, fourteen of which are used describing a cockatoo and nine of which involve an exchange about the quality of her floor covering. Here are the remaining lines and one extra:

There’s my bed and there’s my couch, said Helen.

They’re all yours, said Mercier. For my part I’ll sleep with none.

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.

Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

I’ll lie on the floor, said Mercier, and wait for dawn. Scenes and faces will unfold before my gaze, the rain on the skylight sound like claws and night rehearse its colours. The longing will take me to throw myself out of the window, but I’ll master it. He repeated, in a roar, I’ll master it.

Back in the street they wondered what they had done with the bicycle. The sack too had disappeared.

It’s an odd passage I grant you. Only later on is it clear that they did in fact spend the night there and had not been ejected therefrom for being too loud and/or requesting sexual favours. It seems quite likely that Helen is a prostitute, nevertheless, even if not she does appear a woman of easy virtue. I can only imagine what a writing tutor would say if one of his students handed in the above. But this is Beckett we’re talking about; a literary genius. It does feel like he’s got carried away somewhere along the line editing this section and if it was only this section I might be more forgiving, but this sets the tone for much of which is to come. He takes his time over their banal conversations and it’s easy to see how Didi and Gogo could have evolved from this pair; Beckett’s not very interested in what these two do, so much as what they think.

Now I am all for asking my readers to pull their weight when reading my books and yet I fear here that Beckett is asking a little too much of me. But not all have felt this. In his enthusiastic-if-not-exactly-painfully-researched article in The Guardian, fellow Irishman Keith Ridgway found in the book familiar ground:

On my first reading of it the biggest thrills I got were ones of recognition. Of course I knew Beckett was from the same city I was, but the first time I could see this clearly was in Mercier and Camier. The city in the book, though unnamed, is certainly Dublin. I recognised the voices, the accents, the mood of it. The Dublin mountains appear, clearly, with references to ruins and roads where I was sure I'd been. The pubs in the book were exactly the kinds of places I was sitting in while reading it.[4]

But at the same time he acknowledges:

You can get this feeling of recognition in all the major Beckett works, but the familiar is only implied, if beautifully so, by the author. Space is made for the details, but you bring them yourself.[5]

Another thing we must keep in mind when reading the English translation is the time difference between its writing and its translating. It was a task that gave him little or no pleasure. Beckett wrote in a letter of 1973 to Barney Rosset that the translation of Mercier et Camier was not going well and that he was “bogged down through loathing of the original.”[6] Beckett has moved on from his vaudeville phase—it’s been seventeen years since Waiting for Godot was first staged and thirteen years since Endgame—and so now Beckett is looking back on these prototypes with much less affection than he had for them originally; the success of Godot has in fact become something of a thorn in his side. He is also going through a dry spell and hasn’t written anything new since Eh Joe in 1966. (It is 1972 before he writes Not I midway through the translation of Mercier et Camier into English.) It has also been eleven years since he wrote anything that might be described as realism (Krapp’s Last Tape) and his prose has taken a strange turn indeed—anyone having read, or at least attempted to read, How It Is, All Strange Away or Imagination Dead Imagine will know what I mean—works of calm, exact austerity and yet for all his hacking away at the text his “resculpting” of Mercier et Camier evokes his earlier works like More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and Watt, works riddled with cultural references and allusions. My suspicion is that it wasn’t so much that he loathed the original—Beckett was prone to exaggeration on occasion—but that he resented having to take what he saw as a backward step. That said:

Already, in the French version, Mercier and Camier are strangely cut off from the world of ordinary people and objects, hardly communicating and finding it easier to discard than to retain possessions. Beckett intensifies this divorce in his translation by the frequent omission of details which might link Mercier and Camier to the ordinary world.[7]

Moving on. There are eight chapters in the book. After every second chapter there follows a list summarising what was contained in the previous pages. None of these are especially helpful and have the feel of checklists that he, as the translator, might have used to make sure that what was important in the original was transferred to the new version. Again, I note the word ‘feel’ and I see I have used ‘seem’ and ‘appear’ already. There are so few things in this book where you can say ‘is’ or ‘are’. Here is the list for chapter one:

Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

And, indeed, these “dry résumés seem like attempts to control and neutralise the unruliness of the preceding material.”[8] They are not additions in the English translation but, because of his cuts and also because of a change of perspective, they do differ from the French. In his book, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, Hugh Kenner makes an interesting comparison:

A dozen years later Beckett conceived Krapp, playing over the tape he recorded three decades earlier and lingering on a segment which at the time he had entered in his ledger only as 'Farewell to Love'. The segments which had celebrated great insight leave him impatient now. These Résumés are a first glimpse of Krapp's ledger; the narrator of Mercier et Camier is a proto-Krapp.[9]

In chapter three the pair have taken the train, “the slow and easy”, or the Dublin and South Eastern Railway, from a station noted for its architectural arch, clearly Harcourt Street Station. (The station facade was designed by George Wilkinson, and contained a central arch and a colonnade of doric columns.) They alight at a small town and lodge at an inn managed by a man called (possibly) Gall; Mercier calls him Gall but there is some doubt cast as to whether this is actually his name. This is where we discover that Camier—F. X. Camier, as it says on his business card—is a private investigator because a man going by the name of Conaire turns up having, it appears, arranged to meet with Camier there; this is the first we learn of that. This is also the first we learn about the physical appearance of the two men: Camier—“[s]mall and fat … red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady piggy eyes;” Mercier—“[a] big bony hank with a beard … hardly steve9/norma/27able to stand, wicked expression.” Grotesque versions of Laurel and Hardy to be sure. (Bair tells us that Beckett “never missed a film starring Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy … or Harold Lloyd.”[10]) Needless to say Conaire does not get to keep his appointment as the two men are found sound asleep on the floor of their room. “Snoring hand in hand.”

The following day they venture into the countryside—surely this is them escaped?—but by chapter five, sometime later (it is unclear how much later as “[t]hey had lost the notion of time”) they find themselves back in the city and back at Helen’s where they spend a couple of nights, the first “without debauch of any kind”. During the next day, as time is beginning to drag, they, to use Beckett’s expression, “manstruprated mildly, without fatigue.” Before an open fire, “their naked bodies mingled, fingering and fondling with the languorous tact of hands arranging flowers.”

Now, there are those who have gone to some lengths to suggest that Vladimir and Estragon are in fact a gay couple—a recent adaptation Waiting for Rev. Gaydot has boyfriends Vladimir and Estragon stand at the altar for two hours, waiting for the Reverend Gaydot to pronounce them husbands. Of course, he never shows—but despite insisting that the roles be played by males, Beckett never gave any indication that they were a gay couple or even homosexually-inclined. (See the Wikipedia entry however.) They hug more than most blokes but you don’t see them sitting around even holding hands—something Mercier and Camier do several times—and let’s face it, the fireside scene is a hard one to talk one’s way out of especially when, only a few pages earlier, when discussing a variety of unconnected concepts they respond to the proposition: “What would one do without women? [with] Explore other channels.” The matter is discussed at some length in Paul Stewart’s Sex and Aesthetics in Samuel Beckett’s Work but one point worth noting is this:

The abhorrence of procreation partly accounts for the often virulent misogyny to be found in … Beckett’s early works. This misogyny is reinforced in Beckett by an oft- expressed hatred of the child, or misopedia, which again is rooted in an understanding of the inherent dangers of procreation and indeed of existence as such. Both misogyny and misopedia—two of the more unpalatable aspects of Beckett’s oeuvre—are an integral part of his reaction against the results of heteronormative, penetrative sex.[11]

I think, in fairness, these two dislikes/hatreds only form part of his more general misanthropy: without sex there would be no conception and without procreation there would be no one to grow old and be miserable doing it.

In [his first] novel, [Dream of Fair to Middling Women], Belacqua substitutes for physical intercourse with the Smeraldina “a fraudulent system of Platonic manualisation, chiroplatonism” – in other words, masturbation. That Beckett should prefer masturbation to the "real thing" was in keeping with his general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than in the outer, "real" world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquillity, its futile exercises of will and ambition.[12]

Masturbation, to be fair, does crop up not infrequently in Beckett’s prose, not that other sexual practices are verboten but when the others do appear, so often they are unsuccessful or unpleasant, if not both; at the very least it’s usually hard work. The thing about that scene in Mercier and Camier is that it doesn’t say that Helen was not a participant. It all depends what Beckett meant when he wrote “they”, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, though, is it not all simply mental masturbation, irrespective of what the characters get up to? If there is one thing Beckett can’t be accused of is taking himself too seriously and if all the aforementioned action takes place within a “skullscape” and the parties involved are two halves of a single personality then what exactly is going on?

Paul Stewart makes a good point here:

Rather than championing a “queer” sexuality in counterpoint to the “normal,” and thereby restricting the queer within the parameters it might seek to question, Beckett’s ambiguous use of nonreproductive sexuality severs the link between the sex object and the identification of the subject that approaches it. More often than not, Beckett’s characters are indifferent to the niceties of sexual choice and the identity politics that plays around that choice, and merely seek a means to scratch the itch of sexual desire, no matter how feeble that desire might be.[13]

Let’s press on.

From there they proceed to a city, visit rough pubs and scenes of Mercier’s youth, and return to a city square, where they assault a constable. Presumably in flight, they appear next on a moor (in the French edition, the Old Military Road in the Wicklow mountains) and then, taking shelter among the ruins along the way, they travel back to the city: “such roughly must have been the course of events.” In the city they meet Watt [who bears little resemblance to the protagonist in Beckett’s novel of the same name] … Passing over the canal Lock Bridge, they sit and contemplate for a time a hospital for diseases of the skin before departing for their homes.[14]

It is hard not to feel somewhat dissatisfied when you reach the end of Mercier and Camier. At least with Didi and Gogo one feels that there was a point to everything they say and do and that they’ve not failed: they’ve survived another day of having to wait. There is small cause for feeling triumphant.

So what is Mercier and Camier about? If Didi and Gogo represent Sam and Suzanne then Mercier and Camier, as a unified whole, represent Sam as he was prior to World War II and the city represents his old life, specifically his overpowering mother. I mentioned the raincoat earlier in passing and the bike. To a casual reader these won’t mean anything but bikes appear too often in Beckett’s writing for us not to realise that they are special to him.[15] As for the raincoat, let Deirdre Bair explain:

Mercier and Camier is about voluntary exile, much like Beckett's own. While it can be read as the odyssey of Beckett and the other young Irishmen who went to Paris in the 1930's hoping to gain the same success as their countryman of an older generation, James Joyce, it can also be read as two aspects of the personality of Beckett himself. Before his departure, he had been easily recognizable in Dublin by his shapeless, dirty raincoat, several sizes too large. He was plagued by recurring idiosyncratic cysts. When he wrecked his own car, he had continuous problems with his bicycle. In a drunken moment, he lost his favourite hat, which he mourned long afterwards.

It is the raincoat, however, which best symbolises the final division of his first 30 years from the rest of his life, as well as this novel's place in his canon: when he left Dublin, Beckett threw his raincoat away, just as Mercier and Camier, after throwing theirs away, walk off into their own uncertain future, looking back now and again at the heap on the ground—unwilling to go on with it, but hesitant to abandon it.[16]

This scene towards the end of the books takes on a very different complexion now. Talking about the raincoat:

We could bury it, said Mercier.

Don't be mawkish, said Camier.

One of the good things about the rise of the ebook is that an author can easily fix any minor errors that he is made aware of after publication. On the downside, if you’re someone like Beckett, there is the temptation of continually keep chipping away at a work as you grow older and have less and less patience for older works.

In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct Waiting For Godot. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed: “This thing needs a good edit.” And this was his masterpiece![17]

The danger in pruning, as any rose grower will warn you, is that one can get carried away. As John and Beryl Fletcher wrote in their introduction to Fin de Partie:

[I]n pruning his work Beckett undoubtedly improved it, but sometimes he compressed things so drastically that the surviving statement is somewhat obscure.[18]

Why Mercier and Camier doesn’t work as well as his other novels will always be a matter of conjecture. Beckett certainly never opened up on the subject. I tend to feel about the book the same way as Keith Ridgway, to whom I’ll give the final words:

Mercier and Camier also makes clear that the major Beckett works did not come from nothing. It's comforting, as a writer, to stumble upon a stumbling Beckett, one who is not exactly sure of what it is he's doing, or where it is he wants to go. He makes mistakes in this book, hits a couple of flat notes. […] But Beckett on an off-day is still more compelling, funnier, more incisive than almost anybody else.[19]

Actually that’s not true. I have more to say concerning Mercier and Camier in my next post, Milligan and Murphy.



[1] John Pilling, Beckett Before Godot, p.211

[2] Stephen Watt, ‘Beckett by Way of Baudrillard’ in Katherine H. Burkman, Ed,, Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett, p.114

[3] A Latinised version of the Freek Makarios meaning "supremely blessed; by extension fortunate, well off: - blessed, happy." An ironic comment on the condition of Mercier and Camier. See Four saints in two acts: a note on the Saints Macarius and the canonization of Gogo and Didi by Lois Friedberg-Dobry

[4] Keith Ridgway, ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, The Guardian, 19 July 2003

[5] Keith Ridgway, ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, The Guardian, 19 July 2003

[6] Quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.634

[7] Steven Connor, ‘“Traduttore, traditore”: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Mercier et Camier, Journal of Beckett Studies, No 11, December 1989, p.2

[8] Steven Connor, ‘“Traduttore, traditore”: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Mercier et Camier, Journal of Beckett Studies, No 11, December 1989, p.7

[9] Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, p.88

[10] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.48

[11] Paul Stewart, Sex and Aesthetics in Samuel Beckett’s Work, p.6

[12] Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, p.106

[13] Paul Stewart, Sex and Aesthetics in Samuel Beckett’s Work, p.196

[14] John P. Harrington, The Irish Beckett, pp.150,151

[15] See Janet Menzies, ‘Beckett’s Bicycles’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, No.6 and ‘The Joys of Cycling with Beckett’ in Samuel Beckett und seine Fahrräder by Friedhelm Rathjen

[16] Deirdre Bair, ‘While Waiting for Godot’, The New York Times, 9 March 1975

[17] Irish Poets and Novelists, The Icon Walk

[18] John and Beryl Fletcher’s critical edition of Fin de partie (London, Methuen, 1970), p.9

[19] Keith Ridgway, ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, The Guardian, 19 July 2003

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