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issue 49: July - August 2005

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Antwerp by Nicholas Royle: Serpent’s Tail, 2005

I enjoy nothing more than a good literary thriller, and Antwerp delivers big time, creating an eery atmosphere, set around red light districts, in a country that for many of us conjures a blurry image at best. It’s hard to even get a stereotype of Belgium, but Royle makes it come alive, if not exactly the way its tourist board would appreciate.

Independent US film maker, Johnny Vos, is in Antwerp shooting a low-budget film that is a biopic of Belgian surrealist artist Paul Delvaux. Vos tries to re-create the actual paintings and for this he hires girls from the red light district. It’s an altogether seamy project, but one that fascinates British film critic Frank Warner, who has been sent on assignment to interview Vos. However, the making of the film is soon overshadowed by a series of murders of local prostitutes, all of whom have been left with various videotapes of films by Belgium director Harry Kumel. And all of whom are somehow connected with Johnny Vos.

Warner remains fairly removed from events until his girlfriend, Sian, flies over to surprise him and shortly thereafter goes missing. Will she turn up dead with a Harry Kumel video left on her body? She’s not directly connected to Vos, but curiously she was last seen with him in a cafe. All the more puzzling because Sian had never liked the sleazy director in the first place, a point that had caused some friction between her and Frank. Vos is taken in for questioning by the police, but afterwards he suddenly disappears, even though he had been under surveillance. Warner has no time for the slow and ineffectual police force, and heads off on his own, racing against time to find his girl.

Many voices appear in the novel, giving it a rich and intricate texture. There is Warner himself, of course, whom we follow in third-person narrative. Then there is the first-person narrator, Wim De Blieck, a shadowy diamond hustler with a beautiful but burned-out partner, Penny. We also have the airline pilot Henk Van Rensbergen, with a decidedly odd sideline (perhaps one Royle shares?). And the pervert who likes to go to the internet site Last House on the Left, an online reality ‘show’ that follows the activities of seven girls living in one big house with fifteen digital video cameras. (One of the girls is a prostitute in Vos’s film.) But scariest of all is the mystery man, whose second-person voice is downright chilling: "You take a miner’s lamp from the back of the van and walk around the wire-mesh fence towards a clear area you can make out between the trees. The lamp is not switched on. You don’t need it yet. You know from experience that using the lamp while there is some daylight will only serve to make it seem darker. You’re also conserving the batteries, just in case."

We’re given a full tour of Antwerp - from the raunchy red light district where young girls flaunt themselves in windows, to the dirty ports, to the industrial outskirts, to the city center with its skewed angles ("The whole country is skewed . . .," Wim says, and gives his take on the country’s opposing political forces and a government riddled with corruption.). Huge, decrepit old buildings, long vacated, such as the Intitut Joseph Lemaire, an old TB clinic, also play an important role. (I was reminded of Royle’s superb 1997 novel The Matter of the Heart where a sprawling Victorian hospital in London forms a central part of the setting.) Appropriately, there is also a foray to the very real

Royle’s prose with its keen sense of irony and wry commentary is always sharp, the story thrilling. Who is behind the murders? Is there a copycat murderer as well? How do Vos and Kumel (a very real Belgium director from the 60s) tie in to it all? And will Warner find Sian? An intelligently written novel - bursting with obscure art and film trivia (anyone ever heard of Harry Kumel?) - that takes you for a nice sick walk on the sleaze side. I couldn’t put it down and was sorry when it came to an end. J.A.

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The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth: Serpent’s Tail 2005 (August)

London, March 1992, and new indy cultural magazine Lux is trying to find its feet, as well as finding readers and sponsors and getting to grips with ageing Apple Macs and desktop publishing. One of the partners, however, Neil Bambridge, may have the scoop they need. Just by chance he bumped into the UK’s hottest film director, Jon Jackson, and managed to get an interview. Jackson had shot to fame the previous year with a noir film Bent that pastiched Brit classics like Get Carter and Villain. But it did more than that: its style and soundtrack became a backdrop for fashion victims who copy the London ‘firm’ clothes and image, and get called Kray Klones for their troubles. Not just a film then, a way of life.

But Neil’s scoop has royally pissed off partner Barry Hudson. Barry is a long-time friend of Jackson’s – hanging around the same rockabilly pub – and was using this friendship as an ace up his sleeve in his power struggles with Neil. As for the third partner, Diana Kemp, the less said about Jackson the better as she once had an affair with him that went way wrong.

Neil’s joy turns sour when it seems Jackson has disappeared and the police want the tapes. Then the director’s body is found, ritually murdered, ‘like a pig’, in a similar style to a killing in the movie. Neil’s tapes of the last interview are now gold dust, but both Diana and Barry are against the blatant exploitation of a friend and a bit repulsed by Neil’s wheeling and dealing with an American publisher who has suddenly become interested in the fortunes of Lux.

Diana, the first-person narrator, buttons down, buries her feelings and continues her life, which includes reviewing some crime books then going to the Crimewave Festival to meet up and interview the authors. One of the books, Weirdo, grabs her attention, but the author, Simon Everill, turns out to be an obnoxious piece of work who on purpose, or by accident, seems to remind everyone of Johnny Rotten.

When an arrest is made the gutter press leaps on the story of the killer being a film buff, which supports their conviction that there is a link between art and violence and there should be censorship. All good copy for Lux. The arrested man doesn’t fit the crime and Diana becomes interested in what really happened and why, but she is no private eye or Nancy Drew or Wonderwoman; she is just a 24-year-old journalist caught up in events that are closer to home than she thinks.

It is here that Unsworth plays a dangerous game. Any crime reader would have worked out who ‘dunnit’ very early on. The ‘why’ is obviously a little harder but surely, Mr. Convention says, it is the main narrator who not only has early suspicions - with a few red herrings and a couple of pink mackerel thrown in – but also finds out the ‘why’. Not in this book. There is a policeman in the background, out of sight and out of mind, who is actually doing the detecting. Diana Kemp just seems to do what young journalists do best – get drunk and throw up all over the place and shag people they shouldn’t. Diana is quite a drinker and a bloody good vomiter and like many a journalist just can’t see the story staring her in the face. The reader is, of course, being fed what it is all about as Diana blunders from one pub to another. So, a crime novel with no real detecting, and bugger me, Unsworth pulls it off.

But there is something else going on, something that gives the book extra weight: if you remove the crime story, you get a lovely snapshot of London with its pubs, people, humour, dialects and districts, especially Camden. You get the early 90s, the publishing industry, and with the witty, pithy, drinking Kemp character you are getting the birth of the ‘ladette’ - not the incompetent drunk I hint at. Unsworth worked for music magazine Melody Maker as well as Bizarre, and her knowledge and love of music, fashion and London pours out of the pages. This really is as much an autobiography as anything else and vast chunks work well on their own. Now put the ‘crime’ story back in and you have a lovingly observed, well-rounded and well-crafted debut novel. MGS

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© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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Nicholas Royle: The Performance
Suhayl Saadi:
Sufisticated Football
Cyan James:
Lewis and Clark, Bryce and Tony


Josh Capps: Soldier of...

picks from back issues

Ann Cummins: Where I Work
Todd Sandvik: The Note


‘Marys’ in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz, Food and Drink in Literature

book reviews

Antwerp by Nicholas Royle
The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth

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