Travel narrows the mind

Sat, Jun 3, 2006, 01:00

Fiction: A novel set in Spain is written as if in translation from its narrator's native tongue.

Manolo "Lolo" Follana is 40 years old, twice married, a successful and prosperous architectural designer in an unnamed Spanish coastal resort. The sensitivity of his skin (which will only tolerate silk, linen and "the finest cotton") is matched by the haughtiness of his demeanour; he enjoys handing out McDonald's job applications to beggars as he strolls through the "Typical Quarter" of his home town.

Lolo does not drive. He has given up reading books. He cannot abide music. He does not care to swim. And he disdains the modern cult of travel.

"They think they want to see the world as it is but that is a lie," he observes to an attractive young woman who expresses a desire to visit Asia and Australia. "They only want the exotic edits of the world and part-time reality. Travel is an opium lie."

Meanwhile, the wide-bodied jets stream in overhead, bearing tourists from northern Europe.

Informed by his doctor and childhood friend, Tenis, that he has been diagnosed with HIV (referred to throughout as The Condition), the hypochondriacal Lolo is not reassured by the fact that modern drugs will guarantee him many more years of life.

Retreating to his apartment in a beachfront development rejoicing in the name of The Phases Zone 1, he compiles a list of all his sexual encounters on his computer, before erasing them from the screen.

Thus begins Alan Warner's fine fifth novel, his first to be set entirely outside his native Scotland. In his debut, Morvern Callar, Warner demonstrated a talent for unlikely acts of ventriloquism.

In that case it was the unique voice of the 21-year-old eponymous narrator, a chemically-fuelled escapee from the supermarket checkout hawking her dead boyfriend's novel as her own to raise some quick cash.

As a writer, Warner relishes the highwire act. In this case, we learn early on that Lolo does not speak English, having recoiled from that ungainly and unnecessarily difficult language while at school. The novel, therefore, is written as if in translation from its narrator's native tongue, a conceit that allows Warner to bend and stretch his words in unexpected and often beautiful ways. It also serves to increase Lolo's opacity, a quality Warner always seems to value in his protagonists.

Lolo himself has a collector's passion for antique guidebooks to his town, relishing such descriptive passages as: "The Typical Quarter at the foot of Heaven Hill with its typical streets adorned with a profusion of potted plants and flowers is very typical and is attractively illuminated at night and provided with many typically typical taverns."

This guidebook prose is replicated to some extent in chapter headings such as, "A Supplemental Chapter. Its Title: the Reserve Water Tank", but this is no exercise in Johnny Foreigner-isms. Warner relishes the strangeness of how English is spoken by the millions for whom it is not a first language, and puts that strangeness to good use.

When Lolo encounters Ahmed, a Somali refugee squatting in a half-built tower block, he brings him home and begins his account of his life: as the spoilt only child of nouveaux riche hoteliers in the dying days of Francoism; as a young student in search of physical sensation; as an unsuccessful and impotent husband.

Sexual encounters figure large, and Warner does sex very well: his description of an adolescent encounter with two Vietnamese girls beneath the seats of the local cinema while Jaws is playing above is simultaneously hilarious, ecstatic and erotic.

Hanging over all is the presentiment of imminent death: Ahmed's own experiences of murder and despair on his voyage from north Africa to Spain; Lolo's sense that everything and everyone he touches becomes cursed, "the oppressive Follana Effect that got to everyone in the end".

The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (a title derived from a line spoken to Warner by his own mother on her deathbed) is many things, among them an acute satire on deracination in communities transformed by the global leisure industry and a perceptive study of the middle-aged male libido in crisis.

But its concerns are ultimately more metaphysical; all these strip developments, all that vacuous sun worship and bland hedonism are heavy with premonitions of something darker, more profound, more terrifying, more real, as Lolo himself senses: "The dusted light of this overstimulated world trembled before my eyes with the certainty of some realm beyond these appearances. I shivered. It was time to sleep."

Some may quibble with the novel's surprisingly redemptive and rather melodramatic finale, but this is a superbly written and thought-provoking work, confirming Warner's position as one of the best and most ambitious British writers of his generation. Anyone contemplating a trip to the bookshop before heading off to southern Europe this summer should consider adding this to their shopping list, if they fancy something a little stronger in their sangria.

Hugh Linehan is Entertainment Editor of The Irish Times

The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven By Alan Warner Jonathan Cape, 390pp. £11.99