Taking care of the tower in European style
The Guard By Peter Terrin, translated by David Colmer. MacLehose, 242pp. £16.99
MICHEL WANTS TO SUCCEED; he is determined to do his job as well as possible. He believes it is his only chance to join the organisation’s elite security team. There is a hint of desperation, even paranoia about him, yet still he tries, carefully washing his uniform and meagre bedding with an endless supply of liquid soap. His speculative observations are measured, carefully reasoned and delivered in staccato bursts – as are the chapters of this most unusual novel. Michel seems very calm but is perhaps merely insane.
He works with Harry, just the two of them. Not quite partners, although sometimes there is a physical closeness. But he doesn’t want to dwell on that. He is aware of Harry’s smell, a hint of walnuts. Michel washes Harry’s socks, but Harry is not overly particular, not fussy, unlike Michel. The two men are very different: Harry is big, gruff and from a farming background. His brothers are also security workers. Michel went to college. His dreams convey his fear and defiance, the uncertainty and turmoil that come from living in a basement car park while entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the largely unseen residents of the luxury apartment block that towers towards the sky.
The Flemish writer Peter Terrin’s coldly beautiful, dystopian allegory depicts the world of now, a strange place paralysed by an unspecified threat. “The authorities have declared a curfew: anyone who ventures out onto the street at night will be shot without warning. The snipers use silencers so as not to sow panic. The authorities have issued sheets of thick paper to black out the windows like in old-style wars. Is an air raid alarm about to go off? Is it possible that the endless silence will suddenly be shattered by an old-fashioned air raid alarm? How big is the chance of that happening while I’m thinking of it? No bigger than when I’m not thinking of it.”
This is a tremendous novel, often horrifically funny and always unsettling. Most emphatically, though, it is a European novel, articulating the cultural situation of a Flanders-born writer looking to Dutch literature while retaining a powerful awareness of Belgium’s surrealist traditions. Kafka is an obvious influence, as are Camus, Ionesco’s absurdist theatre and, at times, the American Robert Coover, but most magnificently of all, suspended over The Guard as a presiding talisman, is the presence of Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) and his dazzling odyssey, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958), a wartime thriller set in the Netherlands that balances truth and delusion. Hermans looked to Gogol – as does Terrin, who creates the impression that his short, vivid chapters have been tossed into the air and arranged in the order in which they fell. To experience Terrin’s hallucinatory cult-novel-in-the-making, deftly translated from the Dutch by the always perceptive David Colmer, is to wander through Michel’s forensically detailed thoughts.
“The remnants are lying on the bottom of the bowl,” he notes during an inspection of a deserted apartment, “a shrivelled sack of pale yellow scales. The goldfish died of suffocation or starvation or both, the only visible victim of the situation outside. Its dark eye has subsided and is staring inwards, as if desperate to turn away from what it saw from the windowsill.”
Having placed his two central characters at the mercy of monotony and mounting panic, Terrin then, with a Beckett-like stroke, introduces another guard. This poor, bewildered man is treated with suspicion. He may or may not exist. It doesn’t matter. Harry and Michel need an enemy, a scapegoat or, at the very least, a resident. They also require a diversion. For a while they have one, when Harry decides to remove the light bulbs, leaving the men to wander in the dark, which makes everything that bit more interesting.
Best of all is the discovery of a fly at large in the basement. Harry vows to kill it.
It is a crazy, cool, lucid and calculating narrative as well as being an eloquent study of paranoia and the games the mind plays. The guards attempt to make sense of their predicament. They agree that it is a professional test. Aside from Harry’s farm-boy origins and the ambitions for career fulfilment that he shares with Michel, we learn nothing about these men beyond their immediate situation. They are employees and are also prisoners.
Between the irregular deliveries of supplies, made by a laid-back youth, Michel and Harry starve. When the food arrives they fall on it like crazed wolves, licking the cans. They find jam on the ground and eat it, avoiding the bits of broken glass. Harry makes one of his rare announcements: “Do you think that jam came out of nowhere? You don’t think it was a gift do you? That jam was earmarked for the elite . . . Would you like to eat strawberry jam on your bread every day? I know I would.”
Harry and Michel are colleagues yet could easily be enemies. Terrin masterfully plays them off each other, just as he entices the reader into a narrative maze. The apartment towers may represent society; the rich will be protected, the poor fend for themselves. In the eerie stillness a bike is heard and the lone cyclist defies all the unknown forces that are keeping everyone else in hiding, in attempting to reach his wife, who is in childbirth. The biker is important. Michel, aware that he is in thrall to “the murmur of my overheated brain”, acknowledges that the sound of the cyclist is momentous: “Everyone’s gone, everyone had fled . . . Harry, me and the mad cyclist have been left behind.” The last resident, when he finally appears, emerges as an almost sinister, God-like figure.
The Guard won a European Union Prize for Literature in 2010; it is Terrin’s fourth novel. He also writes for the theatre, and this deliberate, kaleidoscopic narrative, with its menace and fractured beauty, raises a multitude of questions without offering any answers. Therein lies the full impact of its perverse truths.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent