Sunday, July 31, 2011

The sinister lure of complacency (Books - All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills)

When I finished Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate last week, I just couldn't find fiction that would satisfy. I was more drawn to reading non-fiction, and did take a chunk out of Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, a fascinating book on the emergent properties of complex systems, but before I go to sleep what I really like to read is fiction. I started both Solo by Rana Dasgupta and The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, but neither hit the spot. Then All Quiet on the Orient Express arrived in the mail. I had ordered it a few weeks back on the recommendation of John Self. Imagine, if you can, the hapless, deadpan quality of Buster Keaton in the guise of a modern-day, well not a slacker exactly, since our narrator can be quite industrious, but keenly passive young unattached male with motorcycle. A go-where-the-wind-blows kind of personality. Happy to eat baked beans from a can for every meal seven days per week. Happy to drink at the only pub in town. Happy with ale if it is on tap. Happy with lager if it's not. Then put him into one of Harold Pinter's plays, in which anything from a birthday party to reminiscences with old chums can take on threatening overtones, and you might begin to approximate the strange, delightfully entertaining world Magnus Mills conjures up in his 1999 novel. It all starts rather innocently.
He opened the palm of his hand and for the first time I noticed he was holding a wooden tent peg.
'This yours?' he asked.
'No,' I said. 'Mine are all metal ones.'
'Do you want it? You can have it as a spare if you like.'
'Is it nobody else's?'
'There's no one else left,' he said. 'They've all gone.'
I glanced around the field. 'Oh yes, you're right. Shame really.'
'One speck of rain and they all flee. Then the sun comes back and they miss it.'
'That's always the way, isn't it?'
'Almost always. Do you want this then?'
'OK,' I said, taking the peg. 'Thanks.'
'Would you like to pay some rent?'
'Oh yes. How much do I owe you?'
He adopted a businesslike smile. 'It's a pound a night.'
'That's six pounds so far then.'
'If you've been here six nights, yes.'
'Right.' I took a five-pound note from my back pocket and handed it over, and then began fishing for some coins.
'That's quite expensive really, isn't it?' he remarked. 'Just for you, your tent and your motorbike.'
'Seems alright to me,' I replied.
'I ought to be giving you a bit of discount if you're staying another week.'
'A pound a night's fine.' I said, giving him the balance.
'Alright then,' he said. 'That's grand.'
Now that the transaction was over I expected him to make his excuses and move on, but after he'd taken the money he replanted his feet and looked up at the sky.
'On holiday, are you?' he asked.
'Not really,' I said. 'Well, sort of.'
He smiled again. 'Which?'
'Well, I'm between things at the present. I've been working all summer to save some money so I can go East during the winter.'
'You mean the east coast?'
'Oh, no,' I said. 'Sorry. Abroad East. You know, Turkey, Persia, and then overland to India.'
"I see,' he said, nodding towards my bike. 'You'll be going on that, will you?'
'Probably not, actually,' I replied. 'There's a train you can catch a good part of the way.'
'Is there now? Well, that's handy, isn't it?'
'Yes, I suppose it is.'
He looked at my tent. 'So what brings you to this part of the country then?'
'Well,' I said. 'I've always fancied seeing the lakes, so I thought I'd have a couple of weeks here first.'
'And do you like it so far?'
'What I've seen, yeah.'
'That's good. You going out today?'
'Not sure what I'll be doing really.'
'We've noticed you go out most days.'
'Have you?'
'Yes, we don't miss much from our window.'
In a way I wanted to throttle our guileless narrator as his watchful host, Mr. Parker, engages him, first for one odd job, then for another, pulling him further and further from his Eastern excursion. It becomes evident, in fact, that Mr. Parker, though he says little and pays nothing, has plans for our narrator and that this is not the first visitor he has so engaged. Despite the mundanity of the dialogue and the action, I got a sinister sense that our man was being manipulated like a puppet, loosing what little will he had arrived with. This lends this brief novel its comedy and an unlikely narrative drive.

Our narrator observes the crowd in the local pub early in the book.
Both junior barmen appeared to be roughly the same age as me, and I felt an affinity with the pair of them. I was unable to tell, however, whether they were permanently attached to the Packhorse. They each seemed the type who would probably have been expected to do something 'better' than just work in a pub, and I liked to imagine they were only doing this until something else turned up. The idea of just staying here for every, and never moving on, seemed quite unthinkable.
But then isn't this just like so many lives? Should have done better, but end up doing a job just for one week, and then the next, and then the next, until one looks back thirty years later and asks - how did this become my life? I was always meant to do something better. In this way, Mr. Parker becomes Nick Shadow to our narrator's Tom Rakewell, only Tom is drawn not to the wild pleasures of London here, but ensnared by a quiet village where everyone knows everyone's business, and every one lives off credit from everyone else. I certainly enjoyed the comedy of All Quiet on the Orient Express but along with the uncomfortable laughter, there is a critique of complacency in Magnus Mill's wry observations, and I enjoyed that most of all.

1 comment:

Marie said...

this sounds like a little gem of a book!