Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: Like other genres, fiction-writing works within certain conventions. Take “Eating Air,” the latest novel from British-Guyanese author Pauline Melville.
You begin with some major news stories of the day – Islamist terrorism, the financial crisis, immigration – sprinkle in some broadly-drawn characters – a dissatisfied middle-aged husband, a flamboyantly gay, cross-dressing pilot, a blond femme fatale, a ludicrously wealthy, megalomaniacal banker – and voila: a novel for the once-new century.
“Eating Air” introduces several concurrent story-lines – set in several continents and time periods – which invariably begin to intertwine and eventually converge in a tragic climax.
The story centers on Ella de Vries, a ballerina who dances, between the pages, from 1960s colonial-era Surinam, to London in the 1970s, Brazil in the 1980s and finally pirouetting onto present-day London.
As a dancer with London’s Royal Ballet, Ella somewhat unbelievably falls in with a group resembling the Angry Brigade, a communist militant gang which carried out a series of bomb attacks in the early 1970s.
Holding the story together is the narrator – a nightclub pianist from Surinam – who flits back and forth between the 1970s and today, when some of Ella’s communist acquaintances from the 1970s are now involved with Islamic extremists.
Though the novel suffers from the slightly obvious plot structure and opportunistically newsworthy themes, Melville does have an extraordinary ability to create acute snapshots in time and place.
Middle America is summarized as “… a sprawling wasteland of cinder-block houses behind the old meatpacking factories. It was Nebraska in the sixties. The stores had broken fluorescent lighting and the diners served greasy food …”
In the Scottish Highlands, there “was a huge rainbow and then the rain stopped as they … meandered through wide purple brown valleys. Sullen mountains looked down on them from either side … Everything was bathed in silver light and the low mountains, lochs and distant islands seemed to float ahead of them.”
Contemporary London is comprised of “ … tall twinkling buildings all along the riverbank; a glittering, postmodern, global space which contained a million offices geared to the production of wealth.”
The author has a gift for making the reader feel connection with the places they recognize – or else a desire to visit the places they do not know. One is left with a feeling that Melville is either very well travelled or else has read a vast amount of travel literature.
Melville also manages to reference historical political movements and events in a natural, unforced manner. From the Lebanese Civil War, to Palestinian militant training camps in Jordan to revolutionary movements in Latin America, the book’s selective history of revolt is told through the encounters of her individuals.
The emotions and passions of life – from violence, to love to grief – are described evocatively. A heartbroken Ella is described as feeling as though, “her marrow had turned to ice.”
Unfortunately, these articulate descriptions of particular historical moments and of raw human emotion do not seem to be enough to carry the novel through its 470 pages. The characters are largely unlikeable and even the more personable of them are prone to bouts of violence, or else are manipulative, selfish and greedy.
Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of the human psyche. For some readers though, Melville’s decision to focus on the destructive potential that lies within human beings – rather than viewing this as an aberration – will detract from the book’s accessibility.
“Eating Air” does raise some interesting questions. Is terrorism ever justified? Will we abandon the ideals we once held, as we grow older, in favor of a quiet life? Are there any ideas worth fighting for anymore?
Perhaps the novel’s most intriguing proposition is that Islamism has simply filled the lacuna left by the waning of Communism. “We’re jumping into the void left by the Soviet Union,” explains Shahid, one of the book’s terrorists. “You wait and see. It will be the sword of Islam that slashes the bellies of the fat.”
Many aspects of the story verge on the farcical. One character, for instance, is killed during an attack by a wild boar. In England. If you are able to appreciate the surreal brand of humor in this Melville’s representation of the world, you might enjoy “Eating Air.”
Pauline Melville’s “Eating Air” (407pp) is published by Telegram Books.