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Fiction reviews


Martin Buzacott - Narrenschiff; Max Dann - The Onion Man

27 April 1988

Narrenschiff, by Martin Buzacott

The Onion Man, by Max Dann

Published in The Age

MARTIN BUZACOTT'S SECOND novel follows the life of his narrator, Seth Sajewski, a child who saw Dresden razed, and whose widower father took him to live in post-War Australia. Seth's life - traced to the present - is one of extremes. Unspeakable joy and appalling tragedy follow him all his days. Periodically, he conducts an elaborate fantasy in which he sails through time and place aboard a rabelaisian "ship of fools": the Narrenschiff of the title.

As Buzacott acknowledges, this motif is hardly original. Neither of course is the idea of seminal events transpiring in Dresden during the fire-bombing. (Like Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, this story is anchored to such a scene.) Why he pursued these well-worn paths, then, is not clear. Perhaps he wanted to imbue them with new life through his philosophical insights - and (during the ship of fools sequences) some scarifying depravity. The first half of this book, indeed, seems a kind of attempt to redeem depravity through philosophy, and to inject philosophy with some of the former's vital juices.

It doesn't work, because the sex, violence and general exudation is mindless - and Seth's philosophy unfailingly banal:

 ...you think you've got nature conquered... That's what you think isn't it?... Well you're wrong. Why? I'll tell you why. Because the earth will have its day. What do you take the earth for, some inanimate thing put there for our exclusive convenience?

Also, Buzacott rarely slows his narrative long enough to allow us to partake of events. Its furious pace is actually its downfall. For example a major character - hitherto quite buoyant - goes suddenly downhill and commits an horrendous murder-suicide, in the space of four pages.

Penelope, Seth's girl, is almost entirely invisible - buried beneath hundreds of adjectives that would normally only be occasioned by a goddess. But this goddess literally never speaks - indeed she lacks volition entirely. (A straight case of anima projection, as a Jungian would put it.)

There's a touching scene when his father attends Seth's wedding. The men watch each other, weeping quietly. They're thinking of Seth's mother, who perished with Dresden. This occasional, more elemental, stuff redeems Narrenschiff''s general pretentiousness. In the main, however, the novel does not convey ideas, emotion and character so much as talk about them.

The front cover, by Andrew Ireland, is superb.

THE ONION MAN'S jacket (by Maire Smith) depicts Max Dann's guarded, narcissistic central character, Roland Carmody, throwing chocolates into the air. The look on his face captures the book's innate melancholia most wittily.

First-time novelist Dann's working class narrator is hypochondriacal, obsessive, untrustworthy, and absolutely lacking in humour. Roland sells his landlord's furniture to a friend. He lies a lot. He treats his girlfriend, Susan, quite badly. His narration is intended to convey this "lostness" - his kind-of innocence. Unfortunately it rarely succeeds: it takes a very fine craftsman indeed to capture the voice of the ingenue without tedium.

Like Narrenschiff, this novel skates blithely over difficult action. (It is hopefully not patronising to note that both authors are still in their early thirties.) For instance, we meet Susan - then, next thing we know, she and Roland have slept together six times and are in love. Then he drops her. We miss most of it.

Roland's a bit of a misogynist - though human beings in general are not really his cup of tea. ("The minute you open yourself up to somebody they just want to widen the hole so they can climb right in and start changing how it all works to suit them" is one of his more articulate moments.)

This book could have done with more careful editing. That publishers' editors - to say nothing of authors - are unaware of the difference between "effect" and "affect", for example, is a matter for lamentation.

Penguin must have thought that, in tacking "or something" on the end of every second sentence, this author had struck a recipe for naive literary charm. ("I forget his name, David or Douglas or something." "It made her look sad, or something." "…soaking in a big pool of chlorine or something." "She was only about fifty years old or something." - ad nauseam.) Also, perhaps, they felt his dodging of many of the story's major issues was okay, because he repeatedly confesses to so doing. The following is a common refrain:

"Well no, that isn't it. Well, sort of, but not exactly. I don't know the words for it."

To surmise a little, Penguin may even, somehow, have been persuaded that this narrator's interminable self-contradictions added up to "complexity" - or perhaps "richness":

The place was like a big family all living in the one big house in a way, except that nobody talked to each other. Well a couple of them did, but I hardly ever talked back. There was one or two there I'd talked to a bit though. Well, mainly just the one. This Neville that lived underneath me. He was about forty-five or something...

How wrong they were.

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