Hard to give you a judgment right here and now on ‘Winged with death’, John Baker‘s seeming farewell to crime fiction without giving the game away. Did I enjoy reading it? Oh yes, on the way … but it’s not so easy to say, now – enjoyment? Certainly engagement – but after that coda? It’s a brave literary marmite, that end. Don’t let that stop you; it should be an inducement. I really didn’t see it coming. Maybe that gives too much away already, when you know one of the narratives kept in the air – alongside the writing of a memoir of a rite of passage in Uruguay in upheaval in the ’70s, and that memoir of course – involves a missing teenage girl in the novel’s present. Maybe I’m a lazy reader, but I just wanted to start on in again straight away to see how he did it, if he gets away with it, this – some might say – literary crime. It is possible to see ‘Winged with death’ as two books, with and without those last pages. Still not sure which one I like best.
That Baker, he’s a dancer but he’s never been to Uruguay. Could he choose anywhere more obscure? Of course, but you know – only 3.4million people, half of whom live in Montevideo? The only guide book on Amazon, Uruguay is there as an afterthought on an out of print 2006 Lonely Planet Argentina (and subsequently dropped from newer Argentina volumes) and going for £45.15. It felt like I’d been there after this though. I did wonder about the dancing but he’s said he’s done it for over a decade in an interview; it sure aint Strictly. I could list the abstract nouns he uses to describe what tango is, poetic passages, slightly different each time. It would be a long list but you could apply most of them to his writing too. Here the dance seems to be an active zen, the spirit and body in opposition to thought and head – the moment, the story. Made me want to give it a go. And, in passing, I’ve not felt moved to read Camus’ ‘The rebel’ for about three decades but I might again now.
With some writers it’s not so much the narrative journey that matters – though you can never afford to ignore it – as, metaphorically, the trip, the walk, the bike ride, the stuff seen from train and bus windows. You feel you’re in good interesting company. That’s why I chose the second extract from just under half through, that you can read for yourself on the Extracts page and feel part of a conversation.
The aftermath of the kidnapping of the American and the flight from Montevideo is pure Hemingway. Which is good in my book. Like the journey across the lake in ‘Farewell to arms’ you know they make it OK – this is a memoir – but at the time of reading you’re never sure. This is writing. There are passages of great quietude in amongst the angst and drama. A fundamental decency comes through even as it is spelled out that any definition humanity has to include what some would wish to call inhumanity. All the big questions are addressed here. And time – timing, being so much older then, contingency, how so much that’s important happens because things have fallen like dice – is at play throughout. In Montivideo there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air. In York there’s still Betty’s.
And some thoughts on a second reading …
I can see a few of the joins, where first time around I thought, hang on – why that? – particularly? It’s a brave piece of writing and a bravura performance. A word tango even. I guess that a writer must always be a bit of a cheat, that the illusion entails that. There’s a lot of poetry in there too and, for want of a better word, philosophy, but nobody’s a vehicle. I may read it again, later on, which is something I’ve never thought with McEwan or Faulks, though life is short and the pile of books is large. I like this book a lot.
For its moments of stillness, and the little stuff like, on page 282:
“I was crying a moment ago, which, as Charles Darwin once observed, is a puzzle.”
Which is actually big stuff – the thing about being human. Butterflies can still be be “ballerinas of expectation” in this ultimately tragic tale.
“Nothing remains, only homeopathic fragments on every passing breeze.” (p67).
Another way of experiencing what has stayed with me for years after reading a popularizing book about maths, that for one fleeting moment, mathematically, in all probablity we will have had a molecule of air in our lungs that once passed through the lungs of, say, Julius Caesar too.
Contemplation and self deprecatory un-purpling (p235):
“I remember the grandfather clock which stood in the hall throughout our childhood. Stephen and I regarded it, almost, as human. The way it cleared its throat before chiming,. and how it ticked at the top of its voice, turning the passing of time into an audible experience.My father loved it. I have no recollection of what happened to it when the old man died.”
Well I laughed.
And I remember thinking, what a generous thing to say, when I read on page 286:
“If a man was not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live at all.”