And we got back to work

The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills

I was sent this book by an old friend in a book swap and I can see why he chose it. It’s a comedy of a pretty niche sort and I think you’d have to know someone well to confidently recommend this to them. I was amused, so thanks Matt.

Mills takes a very simple story of everyday working class life, with all the drudgery and repetition that real life entails, and injects a few bizarre moments and a lot of black humour. Tam and Richie are Scottish fencers working under the supervision of the unnamed narrator, who must cajole and harass them into doing their job. Early in the novel, their employer sends them away from rural Scotland to equally rural west England to erect specialist fences for a grumpy farmer. The three main characters must share a small, dilapidated caravan and all they have to look forward to, aside from going home to Scotland when the job is finished, is their nightly visit to the local pub. When they come across local fencers the Hall Brothers, they think they have inadvertently trodden on toes and are in trouble for it, but the tale turns out to be much stranger than that.

Or does it? At the end I had quite a few unanswered questions. There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect. A talk from the boss will be built up to as a climactic event, while the real big drama just happens with a shrug. The humour is understated and dark.

“Tam slowly advanced on the sheep, chisel raised like a dagger, getting within a few yards of the animal. Then suddenly he sprang forward.
‘Tam, no!’ I yelled.
The sheep instantly bolted, and Tam fell forward onto the ground…
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘I was just seeing if I could catch it, that’s all,’ he replied.
‘Why?’
‘In case we have to eat them.’
‘Why should we have to do that?’
‘Well, there’s fuck all else, is there?’ He looked desperate…
I made Tam promise not to kill, or practise killing, any sheep, and we got back to work.”

Tam and Richie are harmlessly useless. Work-shy and thoughtless to the point of stupidity, they spend all their money (and more, in the form of loans from the narrator) on beer and cigarettes. But they’re sweet in their reliance on one another and they’re happy enough with what they have. When persuaded to work they are good at their job and often it’s easy to sympathise with their reluctance to work – when it’s cold and raining and they just want to be finished and home for Christmas, for instance.

I’m not sure if a point is being made or if it’s just intended to be funny but there are a lot of conversations in the novel where a manager gives an impossible order or wilfully misunderstands an employee. The story is certainly firmly on the side of the main three characters – the working men. It doesn’t try to make big statements about society or the state of Britain but you could argue that this one small example does illustrate issues such as employment rights, debt and heavy drinking.

I did find the tone and subject disorienting at first. Mills worked as a fencer for years and has included a lot of detail about the job in his prose. And the tone is so very dry that it took me a while to pick up on the irony at work. But a chapter or so in it clicked for me and I found myself grinning through the rest of the book.

Published 1998 by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. Winner of the McKitterick Prize in 1999.

Given a pen instead of a gun

Penguin Lost
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

When I began this book, the sequel to Death and the Penguin, I was mostly a little lost and puzzled. I ended it engrossed and near tears (happy-sad ones). Which is a pretty good review in itself, I think.

To explain the plot I’m going to have to discuss how book one ended, so big fat **SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE**

We last saw Victor travelling to Antarctica in the place of his pet penguin Misha, whom he left in a hospital in Kiev with his treatment being paid for by dodgy types who were almost certainly mafia. In this book, Victor arrives back in Kiev to find that Misha has disappeared, Victor’s sort-of foster daughter Sonya has got a pet cat, appearing to have forgotten Misha already, and Nina (Sonya’s nanny) has moved her new boyfriend into Victor’s flat. Alone, dispirited and possibly still on the wrong side of the mafia, Victor is in a dark place and only too happy to get taken under the wing of increasingly questionable types in his search for Misha the penguin.

**END SPOILERS**

In the early parts of this book, former journalist Victor is working for a local politician who initially appears pretty dodgy and certainly has some dodgy contacts. I found this a little dull, perhaps because I was missing some of the nuances of Ukrainian politics. Or perhaps it was Victor’s semi-defeated demeanour. When he started to get his confidence back, I started to be interested. He appears to have a knack for persuading people to help in his unusual quest (finding his pet penguin, if you didn’t get that from the title), though it’s certainly not an easy adventure.

Although book one did deal with politics, mafia and death, they were in the background behind the story of a man and his attempts to pull his life together. In this story Soviet politics become far more prominent, as Victor travels from Ukraine to Russia to Chechnya, the latter embroiled in war and a dangerous place for a Russian-speaker to be. The story gets pretty dark, very dark in fact. And there is less of the black humour of Death and the Penguin, though it is still there. But what it does have plenty of is the same compelling weirdness. I also learned a lot about Ukraine in the 1990s:

“Maybe I’ll be a journalist when I’m big. And sit up in the kitchen when everyone’s asleep.”
“You mustn’t – you wouldn’t want to be a soldier and go to war.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You’d have to, as a journalist. You’d be taken on by some paper, given a pen instead of a gun, and told, ‘There’s the enemy, you go and write nasty things about him.’ And you would, until you got killed or hurt.”

Victor isn’t a positive thinker, perhaps understandably, but this gives him some interesting internal monologues:

“He stared at the white sheet of paper, but his brain refused to function. It was becoming internal, this weightlessness, prior to becoming external again, and beginning to irritate. At long last, he did actually type the words ‘What now?’ and felt better for it. Materialized, turned into text, the question ceased to occupy his thoughts.”

A note on the translation: my early disinterest aside, I felt that Bird did a good job of explaining the nuances of travel and interaction between the Soviet states. And I really felt the cold, bleak atmosphere exemplified by the image of a penguin on the balcony of a high-rise flat overlooking a car park.

Zakon uliki first published 2002 by Folio, Kharkov.
This translation published 2004 by the Harvill Press.