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The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.
Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.
“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.
Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.
The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.
Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne. O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.
Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.
Now that’s funny.
Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.
Oh and Jesus was a socialist.
Things will get better. In fifteen years’ time and that’s such a little space – 90 per cent of the people living in Britain will be over eighty. There won’t be the energy from evil any more than there will be the energy for good.
I have got to stop reviewing books that have been adapted to film. I waste most of the review commenting on the differences between the film and the text. Plus this blog is dedicated to books and yet my love of cinema insists on creeping back in.
Still I was astonished at how much the screenplay based on P.D. James‘ novel diverged from the text. In his commentary on the dvd for Children of Men philosopher Slavoj Zizek comments on how the religious subtext of the book is dropped for more cinematic themes such as terrorism and a breakdown in multicultural society.
Both stories come from the same root, however. By 2021 the human race is doomed by a worldwide epidemic of childlessness that has lasted twenty five years. Theo Faron a fifty-year-old Oxford historian has begun a diary that provides us with an insight into how the quiet extinction of the human race has changed Britain. A new system of governance has taken over in the wake of global panic, ruled by his cousin Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Under his rule order has been restored to the country due to his wide-ranging policy changes and of course the increasing depopulation. Cities are quiet and safe. Criminals are deported to the Isle of Man. Immigrants from other countries are invited to England to do menial jobs, referred to as Sojourners, but are returned to their countries of origin once they become elderly.
The infertility event is designated Omega, with the last generation of humans born in 1995 known as Omegas. Theo describes them as being over-entitled, spoiled brats, who regard their elders with undisguised contempt. There are even rumours that there are roaming gangs of Omegas in the abandoned English countryside. Their youth is something incomprehensible and threatening to the dispassionate and increasingly listless older population. Some women who were of child-bearing at the time of Omega have never recovered from the psychological trauma. Dolls are wheeled about in prams in imitation of real children. There are even christenings of newborn pets. Animals it appears were spared divine punishment.
Theo’s diary also describes his relationship with Xan and their time spent together as children, which allows him to believe he is untouchable even as his concerns about the nature of his cousin’s power over Britain grows. He is contacted by a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, who contact him in the hope that he can use his influence with Xan to repeal some of his policies. Initially dismissive of their utopian plans,Theo is an unwilling co-conspirator, until he is given a reason to hope for a possible future for the human race. It takes nothing less than a genuine miracle to wipe away his privileged sceptism.
At times Theo Faron feels like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel who somehow became lost and wandered into this listless dystopia. James herself draws attention to this, by having Xan utter the line “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.” The early half of Children of Men is a fantastic eulogy to a dying Britain, with Theo a curator for a culture that will soon vanish, singing the praises of emptying churches, libraries and museums. The violent Omegas are strangely alien to him, remiscent of The Midwich Cuckoos and Burgess’ Droogs (much like Alex’s friends, some are even conscripted into the police). The abandoned villages and seaside holiday resorts transformed into destinations for assisted suicide are beautifully evoked.
However, as Theo becomes more and more involved with the Five Fishes the novel changes, becoming an unusual mixture of thriller and religious allegory. Incredibly P.D. James has fashioned a twenty-first century neo-Nativity. Xan makes for a charming Herod, a politician who acquired ideology to suit his passage to power and finds it difficult to relinquish, even in the face of the end of the world. There is an amusing aside when The Beatles classic All You Need is Love becomes a rallying cry for evangelists.
Children of Men is more a novel of ideas than a work of science fiction, questioning the meaning of life without purpose. Remarkable.
“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”
This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.
The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.
Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.
John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.
The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.
The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.
The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).
McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now, a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.
These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.
I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!
Watching the Dyalo snipe and bicker had disabused Martiya of the naive notion that tribal peoples would live in peaceful harmony with one another, just as watching the villagers hack down virgin forest and set it on fire for their fields had disabused Martiya of the notion that the Dyalo would live in placid harmony with nature. But as an anthropologist, she couldn’t indulge in such diverting pleasures as blood quarrels. She needed to be a neutral Switzerland, an unencumbered Sweden.
There is an amusing moment in this novel when the father of a family of Christian missionaries, attempting the save the souls of a little-known (and entirely fictional) tribe called the Dyalo from ‘enslavement’, by their pagan deities and spirits, discovers that America is in thrall to a film called Star Wars. This seeming embrace of neo-paganism, in particular the significant phrase ‘May the Force be with you’, strikes him as a revolt against two thousand years of Christian tradition. He comes to this conclusion after reading an evangelical magazine titled ‘Christian Family Alert!’.
I suspect Mr Belinski and I were reading the same magazines sometime back in the eighties, for my grandmother had a subscription to a very similar publication which in turn memorably featured a hysterical broadside against the mystic mumbo-jumbo George Lucas served up in his space-opera/swashbuckler. I became alarmed at the thought that my enthusiasm for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends was in fact a betrayal of my faith. In tears I confessed everything to my grandmother. She snorted in contempt and told me that I read too much.
On reflection, she was quite right, but sadly I never grew out of reading.
Berlinski’s astonishing debut began as an earnest anthropological study based upon his own experiences in Thailand as a journalist. Then slowly mutated into a fictional account of a different Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, in Thailand, who stumbles upon the remarkable life of a woman jailed for murder, who wrote an in-depth anthropological study while she was behind bars.
The story is in effect a murder mystery, albeit a post-modern one, with Berlinski-narrator seeking to explain the circumstances of Martiya van der Leun’s imprisonment. As his fascination with the mystery grows, his relationship with his own partner and any plans for a return to America to find a real career, raise a family, etcetera, begin to drift away.
A large section of the novel is concerned with the proselytising American family he meets in Chiang Mai and their history. The Walkers (a significant family name in American history) have for three generations preached the word of the gospel in Asia, only arriving in Thailand after being forcibly removed from China following the Communist Revolution. David Luke Walker (Berlinski perhaps setting up the Star Wars joke early on in the novel…) was the latest scion, a young man who was gifted with incredible charisma and charm, born to Dyalo culture. After all he had been born in the jungle. The narrator slowly worms his way into the trust of the clan to discover how Martiya van der Leun first met them – and then killed their favourite son under the influence of demons.
This novel manages to parallel the two Western intrusions into native culture quite ably. On the one hand the missionaries have arrived to rescue the Dyalo tribe from themselves; van der Leun comes to study them in their native habitat, hoping to interfere with their day-to-day lives as little as possible. The Walkers continually refer to America as ‘home’, despite only David’s mother having spent more than eight months at a time there. They also euphemistically insist on referring to a person’s death as having been called ‘Home’. The apocalypse is on the horizon and it is their duty to save as many souls before the Rapture.
There is a wonderful moment when a teenage David, in a flash of rebellion, sneaks into a cinema to watch a screening of Blacula. Similar to Paul Schrader’s experience of encountering film for the first time as an adult, following a sheltered, religious upbringing, the young man is hooked by the silver screen and abandons his faith for a brief time, before his return to the jungle villages, where his fate waits along with Martiya. The scene is beautifully captured by Berlinski. Much of the novel carries a knowing insight into the minds of these characters.
A former manager recommended this book – I am very grateful. A wonderful debut.