By page 4 I was fully immersed and 287 pages later I stepped out wishing that I could stay in a bit longer. First off, it’s not a crime novel so I was saved the need for some sort of in transit epiphany. Secondly, it’s a damn good read that manages that most necessary but elusive (and paradoxical) combination of elements, fast action and pause for thought.
I’m not going to present a thumbnail account of what goes on in the novel. There are synopses aplenty, both in the preceding blog tour stop-offs and in the publicity material available via John’s blog. But what both drives the book along with such momentum and provokes the meditations on time, passion, the personal and the political and, ultimately, loss and denial is the harmony and counterpoint maintained between the narrative sequences in ‘70s Montevideo and in present day York.
Linking the two situations is a claustrophobic sense of the fragility of our existence within any context and the fervent energy whereby we try to establish and maintain a sense of self and identity. And underpinning both theme and narrative in both sections is the primal force of dance in the form of the tango. Enclosed in the tight embrace of the milonguero tango (and caught up in the desperate resistance of the Tupameros guerrillas), young Frederick Boyle absorbs the new identity of Ramon Bolio and grows towards manhood.
Disparate influences are evident in the text – Hemingway in sequences of terse, economical action description; Lawrence in passages of intense, lyrical depiction of sexual and terpsichorean passion; Greene and Le Carré in the fierce moral undertones that inform the political contextualisation of Boyle’s/Bolio’s life in Montevideo. I would add, tentatively, another – Albert Camus. There are moments when, like Meursault in Camus’ L’Étranger, Ramon’s involvement in events seems to have little to do with any operation of personal will or inclination. And there is a potent sense in the dramatic concluding passages of one motivated principally by physical sensation, as if, after his searing experiences in Montevideo, only the power of tango and sex can provide meaning in a chaotic world.
But John Baker’s voice is a clear and distinctive one and Winged With Death is a novel of great power and originality. I shall now confront my prejudices concerning the genre of crime fiction and make my acquaintance with Sam Turner, protagonist of a series of earlier novels. But it’s John Baker’s next novel that I’m anticipating with greatest pleasure.
AS STATED ABOVE, IT IS INEVITABLE THAT, EVEN IN A NOVEL WITH AS DISTINCTIVE A VOICE AS WWD, INFLUENCES WILL BE EVIDENT. HEMINGWAY HAS HIS MOMENTS, AS DO LAWRENCE, GRAHAM GREENE, JOHN LE CARRE, MAYBE EVEN CAMUS. BUT THE SOUTH AMERICAN SETTING AND CERTAIN PASSAGES, NOTABLY THOSE CONCERNED WITH THE TRANSCENDENT POWER OF DANCE, SUGGEST AN ELEMENT OF MAGIC REALISM. WOULD YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THIS GENRE, OR INDEED ANY OTHER NOT MENTIONED, AS BEING PRESENT IN THE WRITING?
One Hundred Years of Solitude has been a constant companion for many years. It is still one of the most memorable novels I have read. If some of that has rubbed off on me I am a happy man. But if you are referring to the scene at the milonga in chapter 22, I think that owes more to the expressionism of Hammett than to Marquez, not that the two are separated by a long distance.
NOT FAR INTO THE NOVEL SOMETHING ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE PASSIONATE INTERDEPENDENCE OF THE PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY PUT ME STRONGLY IN MIND OF E.M. FORSTER’S FAMOUS INVOCATION, ‘ONLY CONNECT’. MIGHT THIS BE SEEN AS A MAJOR THEME WITHIN THE STORY?
I don’t know about a ‘major theme’. I am, of course, familiar with Howard’s End and all of my novels have been concerned with interdependence. I also feel, along with Forster, that ‘only connect’ is a mantra applied equally to class and social divisions as well as to the idea of friendship, with which Forster replaced his loss of belief in a divinity.
MANY WRITERS HAVE BEEN DRAWN IN VARIOUS WAYS TO THE THEME OF TIME – H.G. WELLS, J.B. PRIESTLEY, BECKETT, PINTER. IT’S A DOMINATING ELEMENT IN WINGED WITH DEATH. WHAT ASPECTS OF THE THEME WERE YOU AIMING TO INCORPORATE?
It has always been a very broad canvas for me. Basically I wanted to undermine our current concepts and reliance on the notion of time. It is not something that exists in any real sense. It is nothing. But this comes to mind also, from JB Priestley:
Even as a child I could never understand why certain things that were important to me appeared to older people to be nothing. My dreams were nothing. What I ‘made up’ to delight or terrify myself was nothing. Certain queer feelings, coming out of the blue, were nothing. I can remember, though it must be all of 65 years ago, sitting in the sun on a tiny hillock at the back of our house, and feeling, not lightly but to the very depths of my being, that I was close to some secret about a wonderful treasure, which had no size, no shape, no substance, but all the same was somewhere just behind the sunlight and the buttercups and daisies and the grass and the warm earth. And this too, it seemed, was nothing. I was surrounded and often enchanted, it appeared, by nothings.
A LITTLE FLIPPANTLY, I POSED THE FOLLOWING QUESTION TO FIONA ROBYN DURING HER BLOG TOUR FOR THE LETTERS. SOMERSET MAUGHAM SAID: ‘THERE ARE THREE RULES FOR WRITING A NOVEL. UNFORTUNATELY NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE.’ IF HE’S RIGHT ABOUT THE RULES, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY MIGHT BE?
He’s wrong about the three rules. But there are certain requirements for a novel to come into existence. The writer has to have read other novels. He/she should have spent some time writing in order to learn what happens when you place one word after another. The writer should find some comfort in spending an inordinate amount of time concentrating on the same thing without resorting to drink or drugs.