Extraordinary eyes, Vivienne Jepsen

Love in the Land of Midas
Kapka Kassabova
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0140298797

I have to say, at the outset, that I enjoyed reading Kapka Kassabova’s second novel. It’s a good story, told in such a way as to keep the reader engaged to the end. This is quite remarkable in view of the fact that the writer’s command of English is not yet of the standard we would normally expect of novelists. It is even more remarkable when we consider what an insubstantial bunch of characters the story hangs on.

Theo is an Australian of Greek and Macedonian descent, who has arrived in Thessaloniki to research a PhD thesis on “Cult and Deity in the Life of Alexander the Great”. We might therefore expect him to have an original idea or two on the subject. In fact, he has no idea at all. Insensitive to Greek politics, he offends the people whose co-operation he needs in his research, and he uses this as an excuse to be deflected from his purpose altogether and run off on an expensive trip around the Mediterranean with an heiress he encounters in the street. He’s so thick that he insists he ought to pay his way – even though the trip is her idea, and he has all the financial resources of – well – a PhD student! He’s just too cardboard-cutout to care about. But he does have extraordinary eyes.

Neither can we give a toss for the unpleasant heiress, Véronique, with her heroin habit, her hereditary pointlessness, and nothing of any significance in her life except the empty shell of a relationship with her recently deceased father. She has a beautiful exterior but an ugly tendency to see other people as characterised entirely by their appearances. Like her counterpart in Kassabova’s first novel, Reconnaisance, Véronique is fascinated and disgusted by fat people, and she sees a lot of them. But then she does have extraordinary eyes.

Being French, Véronique complains (with, we suspect, considerable authorial indulgence) that “English is such an impoverished, withdrawing language sometimes”, but English in her creator’s hands is a very blunt instrument, used without awareness of its subtleties, its potential for subtext (and without the use of the pluperfect or even a spellchecker). What we get is awkward and abrasive prose which erupts with frequent bursts of grotesque imagery. The relentless similes stud the text like elaborate gargoyles set in roughcast concrete:

She was strangely affected by the sight of her grandmother Pauline, who, like a rare species of bug surprised in amber, was caught in the astonishment of having lost her only child … He sat still … his heart soaked with melancholy like a piece of cork forgotten in wine … His heart stopped, like a dreamy sentinel crashing into the wall of the enemy’s abrupt apparition … Her pupils dilated like bugs flying into the liquid amber of her irises … the kiss flowering in a corner of his lips like a fresh sore… He would fly … alone and caught like a bug in the hardening amber of his bafflement … In the blinding sunshine the television van glistened like an extravagant and repugnant bug.

 

Mercifully, the plague of similes is less insistent in those parts of the story concerned with the grandparents, Daphne and Pascal, and the Greek Civil War in which they encounter each other. The blurb tells us that this is a “more poignant love” — and it is — but Daphne and Pascal are hardly more convincing characters. We know far more about the inner workings of most Harlequin Mills & Boon lovers than we do of this pair. Our sympathy for them is generated almost entirely by the literal minefield we see them in, and by the grotesqueness of the Greek men-in-charge Kassabova particularly likes to set against them. The reader is engaged, but the writer compels an emotional distance.

One of the reasons for this is that too often Kassabova ignores the basic rule of fiction: show, don’t tell. The tragedy of Pascal’s abandoned wife, for example, is put before us repeatedly, but it leaves us cold. It is not enough to have us witness conversations in which she is referred to as “a complex woman … a formidably complex woman … an intelligent woman” when our only insights into her make her seem shallow, obsessive and destructive. Likewise we are told that her disappearing husband “had an intellectual’s mind and a humanist’s heart” and that he was “destined for big things”. Mostly we see him as profoundly stupid and tragically overrated by those he endangers. When the plot requires him to do the irrational, he is more than equal to the task, and his bizarre behaviour (explained with just “he didn’t quite know why”) is rewarded with the key to both the whole plot and his transformation. But, then again, he does have extraordinary eyes.

That Kassabova does not have much respect for her reader’s intelligence is again evident in the way many stories from Greek mythology are retold in conversation, without novelty or irony or anything that could not have come out of a tourist brochure, as if the reader is expected to be entirely ignorant of them. The whole Midas thing becomes tedious without ever really making more than a superficial symbol. Sometimes it descends into plain silliness.

Love in the Land of Midas is not a book about love (and Midas is generally more at home in Turkey). And if it’s not about love, it certainly isn’t about sex. Unlike a romance novel, the sex here happens mostly in the gaps between paragraphs, and there is nothing remotely sensual or even erotic about the bits we do get:

Their lips merged, followed by a merging of hips and loins, flat stomachs and sharp breasts, a swan-like neck, an arched back, pointed hips, hands which gripped not only shapes but surfaces, so avid were they.

 

And that’s it!

And yet the novel has nothing of the grim realism New Zealand writers struggle so suffocatingly under. Kassabova writes with the unselfconsciousness of someone who hasn’t yet learnt the pitfalls of the English language, or the literary cringe at romance. Her characters are never subject to everyday reality. They make taking near overdoses of heroin or getting both legs blown off seem romantic. They are beautiful people in beautiful places and this is enough to make them worthy of fiction.

So, the characters are two-dimensional, the sex is bad, the editing inadequate, and many of the small but pivotal details of the plot do not bear close scrutiny. Why, then, is the book so compelling?

Notwithstanding the reliance on an extraordinary amount of luck and some big coincidences, this is a well-structured novel with most of the right ingredients: war, romance, hidden relationships, mysterious disappearances, a great location. And the way the story unfolds – with the grandchildren haphazardly on a path to uncover the fate of the grandparents (whose romance is what the story really turns on) is just brilliant. We know what they must discover, and we want to see it played out. And the fate of Daphne and Pascal does sneak up on us, unexpectedly providing the novel with real characters by the very process of their disintegration. And the land of Midas – supposedly such a petrifying desert – wins our admiration from the start. It could have been a great novel.

 

Vivienne Jepsen is a Wellington novelist.

 

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