(2013) Peter Terrin, Maclehose, £8.99, pbk, 242pp, ISBN 978-1-848-66294-0
This is by some margin the strangest book I’ve reviewed in these pages. I am not even sure if it is speculative fiction. It’s very disturbing, in a relentless way, and I found myself slightly off balance at the end.
It is a translation from a Dutch original, which initially made me wary. Part of any book’s charm is in the richness of its prose and the author’s deftness with language, but translators can often deaden a piece of work and defuse it of its power. But this book has some strong, confident writing in it and the translator – David Colmer – has done a good job.
The author, Peter Terrin, has a track record. This is his fourth novel, and in the Dutch original this book won the European Literature Prize 2010. And if I ran Waterstones the literature shelves are where I would put this.
Michel is a guard in a large residential building in an unspecified northern European city. He and his colleague Harry guard the basement and live in a small room at the back, intermittently supplied with food and drink by the company they work for. They have a routine involving pointless inspections, over-regular weapons checks and paranoid incivility. And then the residents, over a period of time, leave. One remains, a mysterious ‘last resident’ that Michel and Harry feel they have to guard. They have not been relieved by the Company, and they never leave the building, so they have no idea what’s going on. They still get Company food drops, though these become more irregular and less substantial. Plainly something is going on in the outside world but the only person they now come into contact with is the delivery driver, and they don’t ask him because Harry would see that as a point of weakness, and he is convinced that they are being tested to see if they are suitable for promotion.
Nothing much actually happens in this book. There are two key incidents – one, when a long-awaited third guard arrives to augment their team, which threatens Harry’s routine and forces him into drastic action, and one where, half starving, they enter the building proper to track down the mysterious ‘last resident’. That was little like Schrodinger's cat experiment. As long as the guards stayed in the basement, they could believe in the existence of the mystery last resident. But what if, when they searched for him, he wasn’t there?
Despite being written by a Dutchman, there is a very Eastern European feel to this book, mainly because it’s all about paranoia, routine, unthinking duty and cruelty crudely justified by an insane take on circumstances. Others have made the Kafka comparison about this book so this is not original but there is a very Kafkasque feel to it, particularly The Trial, where the protagonist is trapped in a meaningless bureaucratic nightmare with ever dwindling chances of escape and no satisfying explanations for anything. Part of this is the language used in The Guard, spare, direct and matter-of-fact, which gives it a cold precision. But it’s mainly because the characters derive their personalities from their roles – they are guards plain and simple: no family, no backstory, no other life – and because they are doggedly determined to see their task through no matter what logic and common sense might tell them.
I suspect Terrin’s inspiration was a run-in with some minor security jobsworths. Because that’s what Michel and Harry are on a grand, exaggerated scale. The world is probably ending and they are still guarding the basement, because that’s their job.
Chilling and disturbing, this book is in places gripping and horrific, even though much of it is describing and re-describing Michel’s mindless routine. That they eventually descend into madness is not in doubt. How that madness manifests itself, though, is what makes this book stand out.
All things considered, I am convinced this is a very good book, despite (and perhaps because of) its unconventional approach. It is clear, though, that other readers have found it challenging and the ending has come in for some criticism, possibly because the plot doesn’t resolve itself in the conventional sense, But this is not a conventional book and will, I suspect, do well on the mainstream shelves (if that is where it ends up). For a speculative fiction audience? Maybe less so, but it is not overlong, and is an off-balancing thought-provoker. So, with caveats, I would recommend this novel.
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