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.”