Saturday, 4 March 2006

Review: Ludmila’s Broken English, DBC Pierre (2006)

  ‘Mama!’ Irina shouted. ‘You’re making the day too hard! Kindly collect your senses. Because we revere Aleksandr, we have kept him outside where he is best preserved. It was only one night, wolves won’t cross the fence. And to leave the body there until the examiner comes is pure intelligence — because he will imagine the death is just after happening.’
  ‘Hoh! His own death will probably be long after happening if it’s Nadezhda you’ve sent to fetch him.’
  ‘Well, at least bring those sacks off his face!’
  ‘Those aren’t sacks, it’s Milochka’s coat that she has kindly assigned to serve her grandpa’s dignity. Listen to me: when his death is properly written, he’ll come inside for a bit. Now please don’t steal everyone’s ears away from the day’s important business. The front is nearly here, let’s get Ludmila away.’

Pierre’s prose demonstrates a Shakespearian verve that includes the sonorous rant and the uncompromising emphasis. And the dramatics don’t cease with the dialog. Descriptions also rise to each occasion on wings of pure invention. And this is an ambitious novel, where invention takes the back row to no minor key. All stops are open, as in Martin Amis, but the music rides the air effortlessly, distributing humour and compassion from on high.

Bunny rubbed his hair into a more hopeless tangle, retied his outermost dressing gown, and trotted upstairs like a travelling nativity. A stain grew in watery pixels behind the door’s frosted-glass panel. He opened it, and peered out into a dull, petrol-scented cold that lacquered his skin like milk scum. In the middle of his field of vision, close but down somewhat, stood a slight man in middle age. Grey slacks flapped around his bones, a twisted school tie threw blobs of shadow between the lapels of a blazer.

A new character enters the force-field of irritation and pathos that surrounds separated twins Blair Albert Heath and Gordon-Marie “Bunny” Heath. His entrance is awaited with trepidation by both, although they try not to show it: at least to each other. Is it the assessor? In Ludmila’s world they are also waiting for an important emissary from the powers that be — the examiner. While Ludmila’s people wait for this dread arrival, Bunny and Blair try to come to grips with the conundrum of what face to present to theirs.

Blair and Bunny are opposites. This balance of forces in their strand of the novel causes infinite opportunity for friction, and with it comedy, as in Laurel and Hardy, just without the kicks and slaps of the act. The two feed off each other mercilessly as they chart their courses through life: Blair looking out for the main chance and Bunny reminiscing fondly over the saccharine pleasures of the nursing home they have recently left behind. These Siamese twins are off on independent tangents, but seem to need each other despite their differences. It’s quite pathetic — as it’s meant to be.

While Bunny is consumed by the promise of doom, Blair is alive to infinite possibility. Their selfish gyrations are fraught with pathos and yearning. They set one another off ideally, as Ludmila’s self-possession sets off the desultory oblivion of her surroundings. Nobody dies. Yet.

Blair devoured the texture of that family at the beer-washed table. His dreams lashed the crannies of their lives, composed the awkward confidences her brother would share with him, practised the wisdoms he would expound while the mother looked dotingly on in bright acrylic sportswear too snug for her, cheeks flushed from deep-frying their tea. Blair would banish the aitches from his speech, toss saucy fibs at the mum with a crooked smile and a raffish jerk of his head.

The possibilities for unhappiness, however, are multiple, when Blair has eyes to see the truth. The whip-smart wordplay is astonishing:

Throbbing music no longer beat time to a young life ascending. Now it hammered boards over future’s window.

The title of book 2, ‘Arguments in the New world’ is like a threat, or, it appears to be. A threat of further violence, with a promise of more chuckle-inducing comedy. In this book, Blair and Bunny meet Truman, an American entrepreneur with interests in healthcare, munitions and a new type of cocktail mix that you add to water and which is also an aphrodisiac:

  ‘I’m telling you, Bobby, it’s a skyrocket — and it’s my brainchild, don’t even ask me where the ideas come from. One day, eating lunch, I just thought: why get mayo on my fingers? Kaboom. The sandwich applicator: bite-size access without the mess. Between that, and the entertainment business, and the oil franchise —’
  ‘And the British healthcare system,’ said Bunny helpfully.
  ‘And the British healthcare system, and the cocktail mix —’ Truman paused. ‘Now there’s a skyrocket for you: Howitzer, the most uplifting drink in the world, ready-mixed, comes in a packet. It’s the way forward, boys — it’s going to permanently refocus the way people leisurise, probably the whole way they live.’
  ‘Crikey,’ said Bunny, ‘do you just mix it with alcohol?’
  ‘No, everything’s right there, freeze-dried, in the packet. What kind of host would I be if I didn’t rustle one up for my boys?’ He stepped away to press a button on his desk.

Now, during his talk at the 2004 Sydney Writer’s Festival, Pierre illustrated what he thought was good about Americans. He described the type of inventiveness they displayed — in that case a new mechanism for pouring cocktails. Pierre has trumped himself with Truman’s new invention: freeze-dried cocktails. Pierre evidently remembered that night and the hundreds of people he was able to pull to the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. This new kind of consumer rort is his answer to his own enthusiasm.

Ludmila’s Broken English is a tour-de-force of comedy, a fine follow-up to Vernon God Little, although different in every way. It cements his reputation as one of the most inventive and seductive writers in the English language today.


Books and Tea For Two said...

If you had to say which DBC book you prefered, which would you suggest?

Matthew da Silva said...

Vernon God Little won the Booker, so that's an extra recommendation. Ludmila's Broken English got very mixed reviews generally, but if I were to choose which to keep -- if I could only choose one of them -- I'd go with Ludmila.