Spoils of war
Sue Wilson checks out the winner of a new European literary prize.
‘Although over the last 50 years western man has been making use ofscience. technology and morality to devise highly ingenious ways of preventing war laying waste his territory yet again. this doesn‘t mean he‘s started to see sense. only that he can sense his warlike instinct ﬂooding back. The harder he tries to keep his barbarian side under control. it bursts out even more strongly.‘
Humankind‘s love-hate relationship with war. the fact that the prospect ofconflict has become a fundamental premise of modern society. shaping our lives on an individual and collective level — these are the central themes ofClaude Delarue's Waitingfor War. his seventh novel. which won last year's inaugural European Novel ofthe Year award. The aim of the prize is to introduce adventurous and innovative Continental writing to a wider audience. by ensuring extensive translation. Though critically acclaimed abroad. Delarue (Swiss by birth but a longtime resident in France) is unheard-of in Britain — this is the first time his work has been translated into English.
Waitingfor War is a strange and beautiful novel. a challenging. compellingly readable ‘metaphysical thriller‘. centred on the ambivalent. shifting balance ofdependency and power between Olga Grekova-Leber. a disabled former actress and her nameless secretary. later her lover. She was paralysed in the accident which killed her husband. a celebrated architect who devoted his life to building huge. impregnable bomb shelters around the world in an attempt to save a portion of the human race from the holocaust he saw as inevitable and imminent - the opening quote is taken from his journals. The mountain fortress. in an unnamed European country where his widow
lives on. is a state—of-lhe-art nuclear shelter fifteen times the size of Amiens cathedral. an underground city designed to house the entire local population.
The central symbol of the fortress operates on several levels. most ironically as a monument to the seeming impossibility of human beings freeing themselves from an existential framework shaped by war. however they struggle to outwit it. The entire grand concept of a refuge which will enable people to escape war and death is shown to be. in
one sense. fundamentally rnisconceived: “‘When
Samuel l.eber built this shelter. he didn't think of
everything. or perhaps he thought too highly of the
human race." [the secretary] went on. speaking into total darkness. "l le didn't picture what would happen if thousands of people took refuge in here and were forced to live here for years on end — the same old scenarios would recur. the old warlike instinct would surface again. rival factions would be set tip. with opposing ideologies. . . with
everyone at such close quarters. aggression would
rapidly build up and violence would spread like wildfire.” '
; still. Delarue seems to suggest. be another new ' beginning. Set against the human instinct for
f stubborn vitality ofour need for each other. our ‘ propensity to love. to care — care enough to design
Amidst this all-pervading pessimism. however. ‘a tiny glimmer of hope always keeps on flickering. somewhere. to break down even the strongest defences’ — the fortress is described as a Noah‘s Ark. ()lga and the secretary as a second Adam and Eve. After another man-made cataclysm. human folly and arrogance once again inviting retribution on the scale of the Flood or the Fall. there may
violence and war. our fascination with death. is the
and construct a massive. preposterous cathedral to survival. "l‘he architect's labour. in his manner. was an act ofoptimism.‘ says Delarue. ‘l le was acting for humankind. Even though life inside would be quite impossible; you might save part of hutnanity with this fortress. but it would be a rather absurd sort ofsafety — that's true. and it's highly ironic. but there are grounds for hope in the fact that someone is prepared to try.‘
ll titling/or ll'ur is published by ill/1471'qu[6.99
i passionate (though supposedly no-slrings) affair which threatens his
which the clandestine romance is ;
solidity and veracity. I wanted to explore that, to write about that little
Christina Koning is one of those newspaper literati with the power to make or break a first novel and, therefore, a first-time novelist. Now the Guardian‘s paperback reviewer is facing the music herself, with the publication of her own debut offering, A Mild Suicide. ‘I see so much new fiction,‘ says Koning, ‘that l was able to use some of the thoughts I had had about first novels in my novel. For instance, everybody seems to write, particularly the first book, in the first person, and l was so fed up with it that I decided not to. Also, writing in the third person gives you more flexibility, you can be all the characters.‘
Koning‘s principal characters are Saul, a married, American post-grad, and Catherine, the object of his adulterous desire, who meet at university in the 70s, beginning a
marriage and her cherished
independence. The relationship
. continues, nevertheless, until Virginia (a suitably virtuous name for Saul‘s
j understanding, devoted wife) flies in
‘ announcing her pregnancy. Cue much
soul-searching followed by inevitable heartbreak. What sets the novel apart, however, is the vivid presence of
Edinburgh as the backdrop against
h‘gﬁn. .3 I, I,
‘I started off trying to write a rave review of the city because I loved it when I lived there, but that became too anodyne, having it like a tourist brochure. I‘m willing to accept that it‘s not everybody’s version of the city; in some ways it‘s slightly surreal or fantastic. Edinburgh is almost like another character in the book — its moods and the way it changes; it’s no accident that the point at which Saul starts to think that this isn‘t such a bad place is when he starts the affair.‘
Koning lived in Edinburgh at exactly the time in which the novel is set, studying, like Catherine, fora PhD in English literature. The typical accusation of ‘autobiography‘, levelled against most first-time novels, seems entirelyjustified. ‘I like William Burroughs’s answer to that,’ she says. “‘Every word of it is autobiographical and every word is fiction." There are elements which are drawn from my own life which I didn‘t see any reason to change, because they give it a
time capsule; it was unfinished business in a sense, something I wanted to deal with. But obviously you start to get into quite deep waters.‘ Certainly A Mild Suicide’s peripheral characters, a group of pseuds who sit around discussing the significance of insects in Joyce and other such crucial literary questions, may drop her in very deep water it they recognise themselves. ‘You‘re not meant to take them entirely seriously; of course they're pretentious. But I did mean there to be an element of satire in the book, it wasn‘t meant to be a straight, po-laced, “how wonderful these people are". In a way I was trying to make a virtue of necessity, in that my background has certain qualities in common with some of theirs. And I suppose I was taking a hard look at some of the absurdity and unreality of those points of view that we held.‘ (Philip Parr) A Mild Suicide is published by Lime Tree at £13.99.
The List 28 Februaryjihlarch Wt): 65