Monday, December 29, 2008
Crime, ghosts, spirits, politics: Olivier Pauvert & Colin Cotterill
Crime fiction sometimes has metaphysical or supernatural overtones, as in Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, reviewed here recently. But I’m usually not much of a fan of outright supernatural occurrences in what is otherwise noir writing. There are two distinct types of supernaturalism in noir (at least), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi sort of thing and intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life—the first exemplified by Olivier Pauvert’s Noir (from France) and the other by the Laotian series by Colin Cotterill. Pauvert’s Noir is a dystopia, but not in the rational, straightforward style of 1984 or Brave New World. Pauvert’s beautifully written novel evokes instead the “end of the world” or after-death narratives of Flann O’Brien (The Third Policeman), Mervyn Peake (the third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy) and some of the writers invoked by the publisher’s blurbs (J.G. Ballard, Michel Houellebecq, and Kathy Acker). The narrator is somehow involved in the gruesome death of a young woman, and after being arrested is in a police van that crashes, killing all aboard. The rest of the book is a phantasmagorical vision of a France after the election of a radical right-wing government, wherein Spirits of the dead who are somehow still linked to the world mingle with police patrols and outcast Black revolutionaries (the literal source of the novel’s title) in revolt against the government that has banned them from daylight. The book is episodic, as the narrator moves from place to place attempting to find out how he is implicated in the girl’s murder, and how he has moved 12 years into the future (a device that seems to rub the narrator’s nose in the fact that he had voted for the government that has now become a racist dictatorship. The story is part thriller, and part political allegory, and the conclusion fails t resolve the real-world situation, veering instead into an almost Greek notion of entering the afterlife reminiscent also of Wyndham Lewis’s Childermass. The book, in the end, is interesting as a piece of writing and as a cautionary political tale, but it lacks the focus, structure, and forward motion of a crime novel (whether a “contemporary” or a “sci-fi” version of the crime novel). Colin Cotteril new “Dr. Siri Investigation” (as the cover announces) is Curse of the Pogo Stick, and it, too is part thriller and part political allegory, but also part Carlos-Castañeda-like tour of the spirit world. The Siri series always balances a rational outer world and a world of spirits, both in the story and in the personality of the only coroner in Communist 1970s Laos. Pogo Stick has very little plot (the two strands of the story concern a) a villainess from a previous novel who is out to get Siri and his associates and b) a Hmong village where a kidnapped Siri is pulled into becoming a shaman in the person of the spirit who has persistently haunted him throughout the series. The “villainess” plot is sketchy and the “shaman” plot isn’t really concerned with crime (it’s about persecuted Hmong villagers, their animistic culture, and Siri’s struggle with (literally) his inner demons. If you’ve read and liked the previous Cotterill books, you’ll probably like this one—the “otherworld” is more prominent here, and Siri’s relationship with his new bride and his assistants in the morgue are developed bit further. But it’s not the place to start with the series: the earlier books are more concerned with crime and with the larger problems of Laos in the ‘70s, and the emphasis on spirits here could be off-putting if you’re not already accustomed to the dual worlds of Dr. Siri.