Obviously, as I wait for the next film to begin, sometimes a matter of minutes, sometimes hours, I will have with me one essential: a book.
Since the beginning of the Festival, I have read three rather extraordinary novels. Full of birds, as it happens – eyeless peacocks on the wallpaper in Bitter Orange; red spirit birds in the desert in Red Birds and birds of ill-omen, blue-eyed ravens in Melmoth.
Bitter Orange is the third novel by Claire Fuller. Set in the English countryside of landscaped gardens and decaying houses, three people stumble together at the behest of an absent owner, to make an inventory of Lyntons, the house and garden.
The narrator is now elderly, mostly bedridden and incarcerated; she has a single visitor – the local vicar. Her confused rambling takes her back to 1969, a hot summer when she was engaged to document the gardens of this dilapidated house complete with box hedged beds, now overgrown, a lake with an interesting bridge (possibly) and with an orangery. Frances Jellico arrives, hot and nervous, and settles in the attic. There are two other people there, Peter and Cara, who are living downstairs and are listing the interiors.
The house has not been lived in fully since before the war, and was requisitioned and apparently damaged by the army during the conflict; or since then has been comprehensively vandalised. Fireplaces ripped out, bannisters smashed and virtually no furniture except iron bedsteads left by the army. And in one room, with wall paper of the sort that brings William Morris to mind, peacocks parade among the lush foliage – but each and every one has been blinded, the eye carefully cut out all the way up the walls, even to the ceiling.
Cara and Peter are friendly, but strange. Cara seems to want to become closer to Frances, in a slightly cloying confidential way, while Peter seems more reserved. There is a strange atmosphere in the house, things get moved and Frances has the feeling there is someone else upstairs. All very unnerving.
As well as all this going on, she has made a discovery which she has kept as a guilty secret. They all have secrets, from each other and eventually from the owner of the house.
This is a tense, heated and complicated novel. Gripping, unwieldy at times and ultimately shocking. Brilliantly conceived and delivered.
I followed this novel with one by Mohammed Hanif, whose first novel A Case of Exploding Oranges was set in Pakistan at the time of the assassination of President Zia. This new novel, Red Birds, is very different. Set in a more or less unnamed country, beset by Middle Eastern problems caused by American bombing, followed by USAID, this is part fantasy, part tragedy and part comedy. How can a novel which has chapters narrated by poodle called Mutt, philosopher and ideologue, be anything but comic? Yet, it is not entirely without sadness.
Mutt’s family: Father Dear, Mother Dear, Bro Ali and Momo have been bombed out of their house, they are living in a camp under blue tarpaulin, with little to eat as the aid has stopped coming; along with the bombing. The American base, The Hangar seems deserted.
Out in the desert, a single downed pilot, Ellie, struggles to survive. He is on the point of no return when he finds Mutt. Mutt’s leg is broken and Ellie does what he can to calm down the animal, when out of the distance roars a Cherokee Jeep, driven by Momo who is out looking for his dog.
The whole story is based on misguided and misunderstood relationships: that between Momo and Mutt; between the parents Mother Dear and Father Dear; and between Ellie and one other character, Miss Flowerbody and then there is the Doctor, who isn’t a doctor at all but who assisted some of the time when the Americans were around, and is now the only person left with any claim to medical knowledge.
Bro Ali has disappeared along with the Americans. The red birds appear, seemingly only to Mutt and sometimes Ellie. It is all very mysterious but at the same time viscerally alarming, what is going on exactly, where are the Americans and why is there no salt?
This is a comical tragedy, with a furious and fantastical ending.
Following this with the gothic horror of Essex girl, Sarah Perry was something of a change of climate and I might not have done it had my choices been more about the size of the book rather than the content!
Melmoth is a synthesis of several colliding myths. Like the ogre in the fairy tale, the Golem in Jewish folklore and the 13th century myth of the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion stories of threatening followers or witnesses abound in literature and memory. Something to keep the children quiet or something to explain the inexplicable. Melmoth is another Christ denier. The legends of Melmoth were that she was with Mary and her companions when they came to the Empty Tomb, but unlike them, Melmoth denied ever having seen the angels or Jesus, risen from the dead. For this, she was condemned to walk the earth as a witness to human wickedness. Whether this myth is entirely the creation of Sarah Perry, is unclear.
The novel is set in present day Prague. Helen Franklin has left home and is working on translation of instruction manuals. She meets Karel Prazan in the library and they become friends, and with his partner Thea, an English barrister also living in Prague, they draw Helen into their lives. Such that eventually, she becomes embroiled in the manuscript that Karel has been given.
For reasons of his own, Karel hands the manuscript over to Helen and vanishes, by this time Thea is changed dramatically from a vibrant and witty person, into an invalid. But there is more to it than just abandoning a sick woman. Fear.
The manuscript contains, is varying order, tales told by people who have felt the influence of Melmoth in their lives. Something that they have done, has haunted them – Melmoth is their guilty conscience. Helen too, has a guilty secret which is weighing her down.
This is not a book to have on your bedside table. Disturbing, unsettling and yet much of it based in fact, the reader is drawn each time, into the painful confessions of different “sinners”. Josef Hoffman, who betrayed a Jewish family; Alice Benet who escaped burning at the stake by denying her faith; Nameless and Hassan who wrote the documents that led to the massacre of innocent Armenians. The times change but the betrayals are similar, and in each story there is the feeling that someone, Melmoth, is watching.
The dread is brilliantly evoked, a black wraithlike creature and the blue-eyed ravens who seem to be ever present, cawing and crying “why? why? how? why?” and then “who?”
All three of these books kept me company. Brilliant, different and absorbing.