Sunday, February 4, 2018

Reading the Booker Books: P.H. Newby's Something to answer for

I have completed the first Booker book, P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For (1969)!

It is the story of Jack Townrow, of somewhere in the U.K., who returns to Port Said just before the Suez Canal crisis. Townrow has been getting letters from the widow of an old friend from his Army days in Egypt, Mrs. Khoury. Seems Mr. Elie Khoury is dead -- and his wife suspects murder. Townrow thinks he can persuade Mrs. K to return to England, where she is from, and gain some of her wealth in the bargain. Perhaps Mrs. K’s personal crisis is meant to parallel the political one: the marriage of an English cockney woman to a Lebanese merchant could represent the uneasy collaboration between Europe and the Middle East over the Suez Canal, into which is added a greedy, meddling Brit.

Shortly after Townrow's return, he is hit on the head and wakes up naked in the desert. After this point, he becomes a completely unreliable narrator: he can't remember his nationality, and at times he’s not exactly sure who he is. He even commits the Orion Error.1 He then falls in love with a Jewish woman, and is accused of being a spy for Israel.

Townrow (whose name I kept misreading as Tomorrow throughout the book – symbolic? or just me?) seems to stand for the na├»ve Brit who assumes his country always does the right thing. This motif is introduced early, when Townrow meets a Jew in the airport on his way to Egypt. They debate whether the British did or could have warned Jews not to get on the trains to the death camps. Finally, the Jew says, “Just because you’re a nice guy yourself, it doesn’t mean you’ve got a nice government.” Later, Townrow, whose mother is Irish and whose father (who abandoned them) is English, says, “What was an Irishman but a sort of Jew?” 

The comparison reminds me of the scene from the excellent film “The Commitments,” when the band leader tries to persuade the white Irish musicians that they have every right to play the blues, telling them that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe,” and to repeat after him: “I’m black and I’m proud.” The latter comparison makes more sense to me; sadly, the Jews have been feared for their supposed power and wealth, while the Irish and blacks have been despised for their lack of both. (Oh, and if you click on "The Commitments" link, that's a young Glen Hansard of "Once" sitting in the center!)

However, the trope of the amnesic, confused, unreliable protagonist in a “vertiginous” situation only takes you so far. It doesn’t appeal to me as a plot device; it seems cliched. Perhaps it wasn’t yet in 1969? I am reminded of the unsolved mysteries and general paranoia of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, or Patrick Modiano’s Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person, in English). I guess I like my mysteries Goldilocks-medium. I don’t enjoy the nice, neat packages of mystery novels, tied up neatly with a bow of motive and opportunity. I am a Post-Modernist gal, so I can take a certain dose of ambiguity; but this type of novel, which seems so incomplete, grates on my nerves as well.

Finally, Townrow realizes “[y]ou couldn’t answer for anything outside your own personal experience. And if you remembered your own experiences wrongly, you didn’t count at all. You weren’t human.” I remember, therefore I am. He comes to cherish his conscience and honor, but just as I was starting to like him, he makes the ridiculous statement that women don’t understand honor. Sigh. What do you think? Can you like a book that dismisses women so sweepingly?


1The Orion Error is one of my biggest literary pet peeves. The constellation Orion is a favorite among writers, perhaps because it is so recognizable. The problem is that in the Northern hemisphere (where Egypt is), Orion is only visible in winter – while the scene where Townrow sees Orion directly overhead takes place in summer. Trust me, I’ve researched this thoroughly. My husband even used this site to look up what the sky looked like during July 1956 in Egypt. But I’ve read at least three other works in which characters in the Northern hemisphere see Orion in summer. It’s jarring, and makes me wonder what other details the author has gotten wrong. At least in this case, Townrow doesn’t even know exactly who he is, so we can dismiss the error as faulty memory.

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