|Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews|
Pan Macmillan (December 2002) 407 pages
ISBN: 0 330 41238 8
Alex Vander is not a pleasant character. It's not just that he is old and grotesque (as he tells us), he is also an alcoholic, callous, selfish, nasty fraud. His stature as an academic is based on deception, for which has a certain genius (as he also tells us), but he lives under a false identity, which he stole from man who disappeared in Antwerp during the Nazi occupation.
Even under threat of exposure, Vander is calculating, arrogant, and manipulative of the young woman, Cass Cleave, who has discovered his secret. In fact, so unpleasant is this character which John Banville creates in the first part of this book, and so vile did I guess his secret to be, that I had just decided that I wanted to waste no more time in his company when Banville suddenly changed tack. Vander, on the turn of a page, is all poetic charm: "Come my ghostly girl, plump up my pillows and sit by me here and I shall tell you a tale, a tale I thought to think of no more until you brought it all back." So I had to read on.
Banville's great skill is in feeding (and feeding on) the reader's imagination. He is a past master at creating unpleasant characters and then changing our perspective so that we see some possibility of redeeming features in them. But in the case of Alex Vander, he sets his readers a tough challenge, and it is hard to explain how he manipulates the reader without spoiling the effect of the book.
Let's just say that Banville uses the reader's knowledge of the racial horrors of WWII, and the depths of depravity to which humans can sink, to shape a view of Vander's true identity which is as true and yet as insubstantial as Vander's own perception of himself. And Cass Cleave, the woman who knows Vander's secret, also has a fragile hold on her identity, being a sufferer of Mandelbaum's Syndrome, a mental disorder at "the bad end of the scale between manic depression and full-blown dementia." Cass is not mad, and she does know Vander's secret, but she suffers seizures and she shares her mind with other voices and phantom people. She is naive—Vander describes her as "hardly more than a child"—and she trusts Vander who, predictably, betrays her trust.
Vander, who lives a comfortable life in California, learns that he risks being exposed as a fraud when he receives a letter from Cass. How much she knows, he cannot tell, but since she is in Antwerp, he decides to take advantage of an invitation to speak at an academic conference in Turin in order to meet her. He manipulates her into coming to Turin, which she can ill-afford to do, takes advantage of her fragility and poverty by taking a room for her in his hotel, sleeps with her, and incomprehensibly and unwillingly falls in love with her. Youth and age, innocence and cynical knowledge, he describes her as Columbine to his Harlequin. And his Harlequin is "most individual," "most enigmatic," "something savage and fiendish," and essentially, a paid executioner. So, the end of this story, naturally, is disastrous.
And in a sense, it is disastrous for the reader, too. We read the story out of curiosity, and we create characters in our imagination from fragmentary evidence, just as we do with the people we meet in real life. Banville shows us how easily we can be led astray, how quickly we judge a person by appearances, how easily our prejudices and misconceptions bias our view, and how much we share the faults of those we condemn. At the end of the book, I felt that I needed to go back and re-read it, but I still didn't like Alex Vander.