jueves, 18 de octubre de 2012

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess is a work that almost defies description. The only way to get a sense of its world is to enter it by reading the book. The novel’s journey is vast, it’s absurdity often hilarious and its dark humour often tinged with a biting perception of the real.

As with many Anthony Burgess novels, the start is staggering. The first hundred pages - as is usual for Anthony Burgess - race past at a hilarious pace. Reginald Morrow Jones - inevitably Vegetable Marrow Jones to his friends – is a Welshman. Enough said… So was King Arthur. What links them? Precious little until you have read the book and then, perhaps, quite a lot less.

But then, as ever with this author, after the initial headlong spurt the pace seems to fall away. It could come as a relief to many readers, since being dragged along at the rate of the opening could easily exhaust. There is, of course, the necessity to develop the characters and their predicaments. Anthony Burgess does this by viewing their lives from different perspectives. This works in part, but the overall similarity of style tends to blur this use of different points of view.

Merely listing the scenarios in which the characters find themselves raises the breathing rate. Anthony Burgess does not need to reinvent history so that his characters may live through it. So, in Any Old Iron, we have a Titanic survivor, Russians in New York with a restaurant business and a sex-starved daughter who seems to like the new cook. After a visit to the First World War, there’s an escapade or two on the streets of St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad eventually - take your pick - as the Russian revolution unfolds. We participate. This is a long way from Wales, about twenty pages or so. Somehow we find ourselves in Manchester. There is a Jewish family with an even more sex-starved daughter. She takes up percussion with her musical ear. World War Two? Thought you would never mention it… Yes, let’s have a bit of that. How about a trek across the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union? Did I forget the posting to Gibraltar that had such a profound effect on a soldier’s career? And what about fluency in Spanish? Where did that come in? National identity is always good for the soul, so while we are talking about the foundation of Israel, why don’t we have a bash at Welsh independence?

The text is peppered with puns, intellectual references, linguistic tricks and occasional insight. We learn, for instance, in quite relevant circumstances, that for Russians water and vodka are regarded as being just about the same thing, the letter k being the only difference. We learn that a letter A embossed on a once shiny, now corroded steel sword originally signified ownership by one Attila the Hun. I mean, can we really dislike Attila the Hun? The same sword later became the property of one Arthur of Wales, the legendary King Arthur of the Knights and Round Tables. The sword, by the way, was later nicked, by theft, not corrosion, and had to be nicked back via an inside job at the Ermitage in Leningrad. (Got the name right this time…) Oh, and there’s that tour of duty in Gibraltar, where a serviceman kills an off duty German as part of the war effort and is accused of murder. What about the trek across a Soviet winter? Already mentioned that…

Any Old Iron, frankly, defies description. Right from the first paragraph, “I’m no metallurgist, merely a retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy” to the last, “It was a pity that Reg had lost his sense of smell,” Any Old Iron taunts the reader with innuendo, humour, double-entendre, intellectual challenge and linguistic trick. What it perhaps does not do is offer a rounded and familiar character that we thoroughly get to know. But part of the point in this novel that addresses ideas of identity is that none of us is knowable in that way. Life presents itself and we live it as it comes along. Circumstance, chance, imagined magical association and loyalty are all quite real and often get in the way. Any Old Iron is seriously funny.

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