Saturday, 11 May 2013

A jolly good Falla

Powerfully-evoked locations are often said to function as characters in their own right within works of fiction.  This being the case, Patagonia in Jonathan Falla's remarkable novel The Physician of Sanlucar is not one you would wish to invite round for dinner.  The Patagonian landscape and environment, and the lives of those dwelling therein during the second decade of the twentieth century, as described with unflinching accuracy by Falla, are grim and precarious.  The novel opens, in fact, with a forensic description of both the 'astonishing' venereal diseases to which the farming colonists are prey, and the ingenious device which the titular character has developed to treat them.  It is a highly arresting first chapter, and typical of the author's lack of inhibition to be bold with content and imagery.

The initially disclosed reason for Matthieu Macanan's having secreted himself in this obscure part of the world is to minister medicinally to the immigrant farmers and the indigenous population, and he comes to espouse the cause of the latter more forcefully and dramatically as the novel progresses.  But there is clearly something deeper and darker in his personal history, the revelation of which is cleverly interwoven into his contretemps with a particularly amoral and loathsome representative of insensitive colonialism, Lovell.  Into Macanan's world come a married Austrian couple (Silke and Theo) who hope to bring the new miracle of aeronautic transport to the region by establishing a flying postal service. There is an immediate and obvious attraction between the physician and the wife, which becomes one of the main engines of the plot.

The subsequent love affair functions, (as does the aircraft which sits awaiting repair in a stockade as the husband sails off to find spare parts) as a beacon of redemption and hope in the physical and moral gloom of the setting.  Without wishing to divulge too much of the plot, however, it is safe to say that there is no unalloyed escape from the toxic effects of the Patagonian environment, and the situations of those caught up in this period and place.  Falla particularly excels in describing how Patagonia invades the souls and bodies of its inhabitants.  At one point, during a dramatic and life-threatening journey to a new location, a character's head wobbles 'with what might have been agreement, or hypothermia', demonstrating that his identity and volition have become indistinguishable from the effects of the extreme climate.  The aeroplane (which is called a dove by its creator and also described in angelic terms) is observed late in the novel to have accumulated 'a lot of dust; it was filling with Patagonia'. 

This is not to say that the book's overall effect is gloomy or depressing - there is a pervasive and effective wry humour at play and, decorating the elegant and efficient prose which propels the plot, passages of very fine, lyrical descriptive writing:  Macanan, for example, hauling a mess of wet canvas, is said to be

'dragging it behind him like a bride with an impossibly heavy train'

and Silke's hair being

'like cobwebs tied back by an orderly spider'.

Additionally, the book's handling of the colonial issues is deft and never sentimental; Falla makes good play of symbols and motifs (the plane being angelic and dove-like, it's creator being called after the prefix for divinity), and there are absorbing insights into and descriptions of human character and behaviour.

All the elements of the plot and setting, including a crucial guest appearance by a German naval crew smuggling gold for the war effort, swirl into a dramatic kaleidoscope of a denouement that brings a satisfying and surprising ending to a riveting book which excavates one of the murkier periods of modern colonialism and in which, most often, the characters' best intentions are warped into tragedy by circumstance and fate.

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