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Fiction reviews

 

Ted Hopkins - The Moon and the Bistro Bar Are Full; Per Olov Enquist - Downfall

17 June 1988

The Moon and the Bistro Bar Are Full
Ted Hopkins
Brunswick Hills Press


Downfall
Per Olov Enquist
Translated by Anna Paterson
Quartet Books, New York


Published in The Age

Ted Hopkins is perhaps best-known for his efforts for Carlton during the 1970 Grand Final. As he himself puts it, in this promisingly-titled book:

Ron Barassi surprised the football public when he brought me onto the field at half-time... I kicked 4 goals for the half. Carlton made a dramatic recovery from what looked like certain defeat to win the game.

One wishes Ted had stuck to the subject he clearly knows best. Only when he writes about the game does this "experimental" collection rise above the commonplace.

Most people have had experiences of bereavement, true love, the bush, and travel. Seldom, however, do they - or will they - translate into literature. The sine qua non, perhaps, is that they be made interesting to others. Unhappily Hopkins rarely achieves this. His stories are styled in that most lazy of modern forms, the "discontinuous narrative". They deal with topics like animals in space capsules, things people have told him in conversations, and driving through the Victorian countryside.

Such imagery as the author cares to employ has been available for some time from the travel industry. And his socio-political observations seldom rise above the sophomoric. Hopkins's disparate pieces come at us out of no previously ordained context, and frequently leave the reader - at their end - staring down the dark barrel of a tangent. We could do with much more of the following - a Barassi story:

One miserably cold afternoon when we'd been thrashed, he herded the...players into the small medical room and locked the door. He began to talk quietly to the silent players about...how we had let our club supporters down. As he talked, he began to cry openly in front of the players...

Hopkins feels deeply about football - this comes through effortlessly. He's well-aware of the issues surrounding the modern game, and talks (too briefly) about the marketing razzamatazz which has so corrupted it. This subject is well worth a book in itself. Ted Hopkins could be the man to write it.

Why then did he persist with this long homage to the pedestrian? Why the endless attempts to drag in the moon, where it frequently does not belong? Hoping to pre-empt such questions, perhaps, Hopkins sometimes "explains" what he is doing. The following passage is an example of this, and of the verbal foliage which so often threatens to grow up and throttle the unwary:

My earlier collaboration on the story THE NEW WORLD CARPARK/LEGGETS BALLROOM (The Book of SLAB), of my theory of the carpark as double sign, as a desperated and primitive description of circuitry/existence "that expires into the night sky above Melbourne", or that I often walk, late at night from Chapel Street to Greville Street across the carpark, or that I was thinking about THE MOON AND THE BISTRO BAR ARE FULL, how I could make links - when I saw the wiry man on a bicycle once more, this time accompanied by a younger man, also riding a bicycle.

If you can tell me what this means, you're probably eligible to write a new text on the Talmud.

More prosaic, to say the very least, is his inclusion of four pages of excerpts from Vic Rail's Train Traveller's News. Another "story" describes in interminable detail the physical construction of the folder in which the author is writing. It is difficult to imagine any use in schools, clubs or the home for this sort of writing - though in certain foreign prisons it could well be employed as a replacement for the slow drip.

Another "explanation", this time of his Bad Poems:

When I wrote...the line, "And just as my dreams fall into pastures/Where the cows chew and float along," what I valued were the cows and what they did, rather than any redeemable or irredeemable features of the poetry.

This is precisely the problem. He has the cows: we have to read about the cows. Scientists, I believe, should experiment on things growing in test-tubes. Writers should experiment on their friends. Neither can in any conscience inflict their experiments on us - at least until they have approached a conclusion.

Hopkins attempts at one point to excuse his obscurantism by invoking Browning: "When he wrote [a particular] line, only God and himself knew the meaning. 'Now,' he said, 'God only knows.'" This rationale is a two-edged sword. Taken out of the hands of a genius, it can inflict a mortal wound to literary pretensions.

Ted Hopkins needs to have a long talk to Barry Dickins.

Per Olov Enquist doesn't. He's got enough on his plate. Beginning Downfall after Hopkins's book was a bit deja vu. Again, one is confronted immediately with disparity. Short chapters about a boy, then a dream, then Brecht. Finally, off we go down a mine, where an inhuman monster, swaddled in cloth, lies in a bed of leather. It moans for a bit.

"'This is no man,' said the guide." Then, a few paragraphs later: "'This is no man,' said the guide." We wait for someone to say, "Those drums - they're driving me crazy!" But there are no drums. Just the beast, which does a bit more moaning. "'It is the child of the devil,' said the guide."

Then we get another dream. A woman picks up a piece of ice, draws on it the figure of a bird... "Then holds the ice close to her mouth, and blows. The ice bird disappears slowly. A little warmth, and so the work of art is gone. Meaning?" (Good question.)

There are several ways in which this seems, in the beginning, a rather amateurish book. The attempts to link its many bits, and What They Mean, into the book's theme - insofar as it has one at this stage - are tenuous. It's as if Enquist made lots of notes over a period of time, and couldn't bear, in the end, to leave anything out. This serves mainly to confuse and alienate.

Up to this point the actual writing, too (you remember writing: it's about the crafting of words and sentences), is foot-weary, and produces occasional howlers: "Earlier I had almost only three dreams." One isn't sure whether to blame Enquist or the translator for all this. A tough editor wouldn't have done the book any harm, either.

After the short chapters peter out, there's a longer one about a child-murderer. Then Brecht reappears.

Just as you're about to scream, Enquist begins the long tale of a two-headed person born in Mexico in the 1880s. It's rather engaging. This person, we are now told, was the moaning monster of the early pages. He is named Pasqual Pinon, and the smaller head sitting in the middle of his forehead is named Maria. Their life-long relationship is pleasingly dilated upon. The pretentiousness evaporates. We begin to forget about all the jarring, and are invited to observe the foibles, the spats and the curious internal dialogue of this singular couple.

Pinon has an affair with another woman - a freak from the show to which they belong. During this time he wraps a turban around his head, so Maria won't know. But she "sings evil" to him, inside their head(s), and nearly drives him mad with guilt. The turban goes, and so does the other woman. You can take the Pinon/Maria relationship as a metaphor for modern marriage, or just leave it alone. Either way, once the author finally makes up his mind that he wants to tell us about it, it is extremely touching.

So Dowfall eventually takes off. And fortunately we stick mainly with Pinon and Maria from now on. Their story resolves beautifully. It seems that this novel - also described on the jacket as "experimental" - is about unlikely human pairings.

Thus this short, difficult book is highly recommended. The too-many-juxtapositions of its first half sorely try one's patience. But this is rewarded lavishly, as the second half builds impeccably to a supernatural, and most gorgeous, coda. It is reminiscent of - and perhaps even better than - that in D.M. Thomas's White Hotel.

There should perhaps be a branch of literature theory called The Search for Obscurity. For as I read these two books, similar only in their inordinate fragmentation, methought I heard a refrain: a chorus of dogs lost in space, and departed laboratory animals - joined, in the end, by millions of innocent readers, tortured beyond endurance:

"No more experiments!" it said.


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