Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Contracts" by P J Walters

Publisher: Waggledance Press; 1 edition (30 Oct. 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-0956966827

The blurb to this book tells the reader that everything in this story is fake, even the name of the main character – it talks about being on the run, being washed up, doing one last job. Blurbs are there to get you to pick up the book, to think, yeah, that sounds like a decent thriller; to make you put your hand in your pocket and dig out the cash. The cover is dark. Bleak. You think you know what you’re getting. You think this is going to be straightforward genre fiction.

But is it? Is this really just a standard crime thriller, read it once, forget it? I don’t think so. I think it’s far, far subtler than the blurb would lead you to believe. True, it’s full of ‘stuff’ happening. Scene after scene winds up the tension ready for the explosive and shocking finale which incidentally, is foreshadowed brilliantly halfway through novel. It’s not so much what happens at that point, but what John, the narrator, says in one of his occasional soliloquies that punctuate the action where he talks about the lack of imagination he sees in the ‘easy-going criminals’ who make up his circle. The emptiness of their thought processes means they cannot see how their actions are going to have real, devastating and horrifying consequences that are beyond their wildest imaginings – the point being that they are incapable of having those imaginings in the first place. There are disasters, tragedies, waiting to happen, and they’ll never see them coming until it’s too late. They simply don’t think. 

John, on the other hand is a thinker. He tries to switch his thinking off, along with his emotions, but that high-functioning brain of his is there in the background all the time, even when he’s numbing it with drink or the excessive workouts with which he abuses his body in his search for oblivion. His life is a downward spiral. He can see this. He has imagination. But even he can’t see the ending.

PJ Walters has produced a hilariously self-deprecating biography for the purposes of this publication. In it, he says: PJ Walters is an academic and writer with the most lacklustre CV in modern British history. He once won an Arts Council award for his writing, but it’s now worn off. The best thing that can be said about him is that he owns a nice hat. Yes, the hat is very nice. I’ve seen photos. But Walters is far more than an academic with a hat. Much of ‘Contracts’ is filmic, much of it very noir, and it’s clear that this is an area which Walters understands intimately. Each scene is perfectly choreographed – it’s ready to be filmed. This is the book of the film that is yet to be made. Walters directs it with exemplary skill, but he bypasses the need for the expense of production – he projects the story directly into his readers’ brains. The language he uses is an object lesson in invisible excellence. You stop noticing you’re reading at all. That’s how it should be.  

It’s not all darkness. There is some humour, though it’s pretty bleak. I particularly enjoyed the excruciating journey John takes when Euan is driving for a change, and he has his CD on auto-play, continually repeating a mind-numbing thumping beat at unbearably high volume. We’ve all had vehicles like that drive past us – it makes a change to be inside one, but this is precisely what this book does so well. Walters takes us inside every aspect of the underworld that his anti-hero inhabits.

The novel is called ‘Contracts’, and it’s a great title, multi-layered, many possible interpretations, but it’s left to the reader to decide precisely what they think it means, beyond the obvious.

So it’s a thriller, yes, and a very good one at that. But it also crosses over into literary fiction because it never spoonfeeds the reader, it never explains. This is not airport fiction. This is a thought provoking and disturbing novel that will get under the reader’s skin in a way which many throwaway thrillers can only dream about, if they have the imagination. But that’s just the point. They don’t.

Monday, 14 November 2016

"I Am A Refugee" by Camillo Adler

‘I Am A Refugee’ by Camillo Adler, Trans. Michel Adler
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 8, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1477664087

I was at a writing event the other week, when one of the ladies there said she was embarking on an account of her mother and aunt’s lives as part of the Kindertransport. She was nervous about writing it, and I sympathised, having written my own mother’s biography with all the details of her life as a ‘hidden child’ in central Europe. These books are very hard to write so long after the event, when memories are fading. Camillo Adler, on the other hand, was writing while everything was happening. His words are immediate. They are raw. They are never filtered through hindsight. His son, Michel Adler, didn’t even know these writings existed until relatively recently, but once he found them, it was clear he would have to translate them into English and get them published. He recognised, as anyone who reads this book will, that these things matter; they matter vitally.

I didn’t realise quite how much until I’d finished the book.

There is much rhetoric being flung about at the moment about ‘the other’; people who are not ‘us’; people who come to be seen as less than human. That dreaded word, ‘Refugees’ and its close cousin ‘asylum seeker’ – both of which are almost becoming pejorative terms these days. These refugees, fleeing death and destruction, are depicted in the mainstream media as a problem for us – we don’t understand why they don’t go back where they came from, we don’t want them to take ‘our’ jobs, we fear many of them are terrorists and will blow us up. We don’t stop to think that the only reason they are refugees is in many instances because we have bankrolled and supported the actions of those who have blown up their homes.

Refugees are ‘wrong’ somehow. They will infect us with their wrongness. We can’t take them in. Send them somewhere else.

But any one of us could become a refugee. Any one of us could become ‘the other’.

Camillo Adler’s book starts off as a straightforward account of what went on, of how he went from being a perfectly valued member of society to being that hated thing, the refugee, the foreigner who isn’t wanted. Add in the problems of anti-Semitism, and he was always going to have a horrendously hard time as WWII approached and then broke out. The book describes his experiences in the Foreign Legion and various internment camps, and makes for a gripping read, especially with the human interest angle of enforced separation from his wife and sons – but then it changes tack, and the last few chapters are, for me, what makes this so much more than simply ‘another’ holocaust memoir.

Camillo Adler is a thinker. A philosopher in all but name. At the end of the book there are a number of essays in which he explores what causes the refugee phenomenon, and what it means to people to be stateless. For you or I, if we get into trouble in a foreign land, we can call on the consulate to help us out. But if you no longer have a state? There is nobody. You are utterly reliant on the goodwill of strangers.

This section of the book is not an easy read, but it is a very important read. I think this should be a taught book in universities, both in history and philosophy faculties.

I only came across this book because Michel Adler, the translator, was looking into the family tree and my name came up. I didn’t even know of his existence, but we discovered we are second cousins, and we got chatting by email, and decided to read each other’s books to learn more about our mutual families.

I’m so glad we did.