The Invisible Mile
Victoria University Press, $30.00
David Coventry had a very good idea, perhaps a brilliant idea, of turning the 1928 Tour de France into an odyssey. It is a journey through spiritual and physical pain, through memory and shifting personality. It is a poetic novel in which war, religion and a bicycle race come to grief, a multiple pile-up of sacrifice and suffering.
The author wanted to write a book around a sporting event that would appeal to people who are not interested in sport. In that he may have succeeded. Perhaps the bigger question, the one that goes to the heart of The Invisible Mile, is whether he has succeeded in creating a book that would equally appeal to the sports lover. Has Coventry pulled off the trick of preaching to the converted? It is a fair question to ask of a novel that may well end up on the sports shelves of some book stores. But it is doubly relevant because so much of The Invisible Mile is about faith – in ourselves, in each other, in the world, in a god. What do we believe in? And this is where I had difficulty with the novel, however good the title. I wanted to believe, but then another damned simile came along and turned me into an atheist.
Here is a not uncharacteristic excerpt:
I somehow find the agony acceptable. It’s as though it rides beside me and I see it and ignore its demand that I kiss its hand. I don’t go near. And it is agony, it is nothing else. My face would paint its picture, I am sure. The utter rude elementary pain that runs from toes to legs to lungs. Lungs shaped like hard flat river stones. Pain that runs the whole circuit of your body, an agony harder than iron and deeper than love. Deeper than love. I’ll never kiss anything whose eyes I can’t see.
Coventry has a good ear for cadence. “Lungs shaped like hard flat river stones” is beautifully evocative, as the writing often is. The paragraph is rolling along just fine, until the moment when the author gets out of the saddle and steps on the pedals. Coventry can’t help himself, but did we need the repetition of “deeper than love”? Isn’t that final sentence just a bit too much? Suddenly we are no longer with the cyclist, but off in some phantasmagoric, authorial world that seems a little forced, a little false. The voice is no longer authentic. It’s a writer searching for meaning and ideas. It’s not a cyclist in a brutal Tour de France.
And that may be all right for some people, but if I were to place The Invisible Mile alongside Tim Krabbe’s The Rider, say, then it simply doesn’t stand up. The Rider, one of the finest books ever written about cycling, is the real thing:
On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts.
In Coventry’s book, the consciousness of the rider is big. Written in the first person, the I of the story is an invention placed alongside real people in history, becoming the fifth rider in the four man Ravat-Wonder team of 1928. He is the man with no name, an interpreter of events, a dreamer, a symbolist, an ecclesiast on wheels.
The narrator’s journey through the scarred landscape of post-WWI France is a religious one. The Ravat-Wonder team consisted of the great Hubert Opperman, cycling’s Bradman in the folklore of Australian sport, his Aussie mates Percy Osborne and the ageing Ernie Bainbridge, and the New Zealander Harry Watson, nicknamed “The Priest”. Time and again, Coventry returns to images and ideas of religion. The narrator’s mother “liked the virgin birth, but not quite enough to go the whole way”, or so he briefly, jokingly, pretends in explaining the name of his sister Marya. His brother is Thomas, doubting Thomas, damaged by the war, silent and stricken, and whose story the narrator steals as he journeys on. Reality is constantly changing shape. The narrator is “a part of the congregation”, the trading of senses makes “it all seem so holy”, he weeps in a church and pulls the stone out of the leg of a fellow-rider, pausing on “the thought of how blood becomes memory”.
Along the way, the narrator hooks up with the ephemeral Celia to guide him through the pain. She, too, shifts personality, even identity in the book. On first encounter “she doesn’t have a name yet”, then she admits to being a thief, then she is a memory, then someone else. Does Celia, as her name implies, point the way to heaven? Certainly she takes the narrator out of hell with her various vials of ephedrine and all the other drugs that the riders of the early tours ingested to get through the pain.
Henri Pelissier, the champion of the 1923 Tour, once said:
You have no idea what the Tour de France is. It’s a calvary. And what’s more, the way to the cross only had 14 stations – we’ve got 15. We suffer on the road. But do you want to see how we keep going? Wait …
Then he produced cocaine for the eyes, chloroform for the gums and boxes of various pills. His brother Francis added: “We run on dynamite”, a phrase perhaps picked up by Coventry when his narrator admits to “sweating like old dynamite”.
But if The Invisible Mile is a journey through the stations of the cross – and as they climb another brutal hill the riders come across “an oversized crucifix lurking” – it is a journey that doesn’t seem to end up going anywhere. There is much to enjoy about the book, particularly the character of Louvière, but the beginning is awkward and the end loses narrative conviction.
Krabbe writes in The Rider: “In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering.” He then describes the 1919 Brussels-Amiens race in which the winner, one of only three finishers, crossed the line with a flat tyre just before midnight, after riding through hailstones, bomb craters and darkness. “Oh to have been a rider then,” writes Krabbe:
Because after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering … That’s why there are riders. Suffering you need; literature is baloney.
That is heresy to Coventry, who suffered while writing The Invisible Mile. He had ME, a desolate, debilitating, depressing illness. I write from experience, but its pain is a million miles removed from the pain of the endurance athlete. ME is a misery that never lets go. The pain of the endurance athlete is a delicious self-imposed torture. In the pain, the eventual pleasure. Krabbe understands this – the greater the cyclist’s pain, the greater the hit. Krabbe would kiss the mouth of agony. And even though Coventry writes at one point that “the pain was exquisite”, I am not sure he truly knows this sporting world.
As one reviewer wrote, for Krabbe “life is the metaphor for the race”. For Coventry, the race is the metaphor for life. Unfortunately, I was unable to believe that his narrator had ever ridden a bike over a mountain.
Mark Reason is a creaking sportsman, journalist and Cambridge literature graduate.