Friday, 18 January 2013

Toll tales from a Frenchman

There is, of course, nothing worse than an undeclared vested interest (except, perhaps, for oxtail soup).  It is in recognition of this truism that I am popping a jaunty fluorescent vest onto this blog post to declare that it reviews a book published by Aurora Metro, for whom I am about to start some freelance work.  The reverse side of this lurid garment declares, with equal stridency, that the positive reaction to said book - brought to you right after this paragraph - is as veined with honesty as is a fine blue cheese with vein-like blue bits.  As a clinching argument, allow me to assert that blue cheese is much nicer than oxtail soup, which I don't eat anyway because I'm a vegetarian (probably because of the taste of oxtail soup).

The Scream by Laurent Graff, translated from the French by Cheryl Robson and Claire Alejo, is an enigmatic novella which ostensibly depicts the fable-like journey of its narrator through a world ravaged by the effects of a mysterious noise, which most of the population can hear and which torments them into fatal agony.  As the story progresses, the original of Edvard Munch's eponymous painting makes a surreal appearance, as our hero takes it on a road trip along a deserted motorway.

This kind of dream-like scenario, with elements of allegory, myth and symbolism, is not easy to do well, and the remainder bins of the world are groaning with miscarried attempts.  Graff, however, pulls the task off beautifully, and uses an intriguing setting which allows him to marry his play with symbol, mood and plot to a credible (if eccentric) narrative that is compelling in its own right.  The narrator is an attendant in a motorway toll booth, and Graff deftly describes the strange beauty, poetry and contentment that the nameless protagonist finds in this occupation.  Some of the best passages in the book, in fact, are given to the central character's descriptions of his emotional and philosophical approaches to the world: 

'I like being bored. I see it as a natural part of everyday life, a mild climate for the soul, like being in a hammock suspended in time between two palm trees.'

Graff also excels in writing about the apparently unpromising environment of a major urban road system, investing it with a beauty and strangeness in a light style that steers well clear of pretentiousness (I am ignoring the temptation to extend the driving metaphor; I hope you appreciate this restraint). There are also several arresting and amusing diversions (sorry - there I go) in the book based on incidental characters, including the gradual transformation of a policeman into a lounge singer and the hilarious but poignant story of a man obsessed with road signs.

The wider themes which emanate from the novel - about (to name a few) travel, place, reality and simulacra, suffering, art and our relationships with friends and strangers - do so with grace and subtlety, and are given a new perspective by the ending.

I found this book to be a very worthy addition to the canon of very short but significant novels; it's already made friends with The Great Gatsby and is inviting The Stranger round for scones (although it's somewhat in awe of both). The Scream also stands interesting comparison to those JG Ballard tales which create a disturbing, poetic world of prose around the subjects of cars and roads, The Crash and Concrete Island.

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