The day that the winner of the Booker Prize is announced seems as good a time as any to publish something.
The something in question is a short essay I wrote earlier this year on the subject of my seemingly eternally ‘forthcoming’ novel The Fourth Largest Rock In Latvia, the importance of satire as a genre and the writing process in general.
Regarding the publishing date for the book itself… well, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in publishing. The final, proofed manuscript was supplied to the publishers seven months ago. Since then little if no progress appears to have been made with the contracted translation into Latvian, selection of a format, design of a cover, marketing plan etc. etc. and my repeated attempts to contact them proved fruitless until last week, just as I was about to contact Interpol.
They reiterated their desire to put the book out, albeit in terms that made it sound like I was offering to extract their wisdom teeth with a half-dose of anaesthetic.
My contract with the publisher expires at the end of December. Hopefully they can discover a hitherto hidden Stakhanovite streak before then and actually deliver on the contract they signed, which would make me so happy I’ll send them a Christmas card.
If not, well, I’ll put the bloody thing out myself and write in rather more detail here about the whole affair.
In fact the essay below was intended to be used as part of the publicity materials for the book. Maybe it still will be used, but rather than let it rot in a drawer any longer, it had might as well be brought out to bring you to a fever pitch of anticipation for the novel itself…
NOTES ON THE FOURTH ROCK
With publication day approaching for my book The Fourth-Largest Rock In Latvia (4LRL), I feel it is worth outlining the reasons why I wrote it in the first place. That’s not from a sense that I am about to make a major contribution to world literature (I would much rather make a minor contribution to Latvian literature) but because it will be good to get my answers prepared for the questions I know will be fired my way from some people with very red faces.
I shall skip the period of 20 years during which I repeated to myself the thoughts familiar to all ‘writers’ who have never actually written anything. Long ago I fulfilled a childhood promise to make my living from the pen, and as is usually the case with dreams that come true, it happens in an ironic way. Hence, I found myself churning out miles of appalling text for tedious magazines, most of it directed at readers with whom I had almost nothing in common.
Like all such frustrated hacks, I boiled and re-boiled ideas for a book in my mind until they evaporated entirely. The book was always going to be started tomorrow. Once or twice I did actually produce a few pages of ‘creative writing’, but it was all either dull, derivative or both dull and derivative.
Deep down I knew it, too. In addition it became obvious that what can seem like a “great idea for a book” usually turns out to be a great idea for a couple of pages.
But then in early 2011, salvation came. On a visit to the Robert’s Books second-hand bookshop in Riga, the helpful owner diagnosed me with a case of Eastern European angst and recommended that I read The File On H by the esteemed Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. It had a fantastic premise – two American linguists visit rural Albania in the 1920s to capture the last remnants of Homeric language before it disappears forever. There are back stories involving a small-town governor, his sexually repressed wife, the secret police, and Serbian-Albanian national rivalry. A sticker on the front cover of the book said it had won the prestigious Booker Prize, while the back cover had rave reviews from French academicians.
As I turned the pages, The File On H completely eluded my expectations. It took a while to convince myself that another book, perhaps a pastiche, had not been substituted between the covers by mistake. This was probably the worst book I had ever read. Every dramatic situation was botched, every detail that might require explanation was papered over and every character managed to be both absolutely tedious and completely unbelievable. Matters weren’t helped by what must rank as one – possibly two – of the worst translation jobs ever commissioned (it was translated from Albanian to French and then from French to English).
I finally gained confidence that the novel really was as awful as it seemed when I encountered a line which was immediately seared into my memory: “Crumbs, thought the governor.”
“‘Crumbs, thought the governor,” was the moment of my literary liberation. Here was a highly successful, critically acclaimed and prize-winning little novel. And it was absolute tripe. It was with a sort of ecstasy I realised that instead of worrying if the book I wrote would be any good, I could now be confident that however dreadful it was, however cliched and unimaginative, no matter how clunky the dialogue and plot, no matter how illogical or disappointing the final page, it could never be as bad as this. I could write something merely quite bad and it would still be better than a Booker Prize-winner.
I may be unfair to Mr Kadare who may indeed be a very fine writer. For obvious reasons I have never read any of his other works in order to confirm this. In a way, it would be a shame if I did find one of his books I quite liked, as it might retrospectively soften the overwhelming drop-kick delivered to my literary backside by the awfulness of The File On H.
From “Crumbs, thought the governor” onwards I have no longer been scared of writing badly and realised that it was better to enjoy writing, albeit with the chance of writing badly, than to be so worried about writing well that I never put pen to paper.
If one form of frustration had to be overcome in order write, another had to be actively cultivated. The other major inspiration for The Fourth Largest Rock came from my day job as a foreign correspondent in Latvia. The route by which I came to be a Baltic foreign correspondent is best left for another time, but like most forms of journalism it involves its fair share of hanging around waiting for things to happen, talking to people for the sake of talking to them and asking inane questions in the hope of a predictable answer.
Far worse than the daily grind of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions – which do provide ample scope for daydreaming – are the big conferences and summits. Sometimes one does encounter entertaining and informative speakers at these events. But these sainted speakers are in a very small minority amongst the droning ranks of experts.
The particular conference that sticks in my mind as far as 4LRL is concerned was one in Riga in 2008 about defence. One can almost forgive economics conferences for being dull. Generally they are only enlivened by the bitchy competitiveness of economists and bankers who view it as far more important to get one over on their colleagues and rivals than to communicate anything stimulating.
It is difficult to be tedious when talking about guns, tanks and fighter aircraft. Except of course, at defence conferences the talk is never about ammunition, equipment and training. It is about strategic threats, theoretical scenarios and potential flashpoints. Soldiers are rarely asked for their views, probably because they are busy patrolling, training and soldiering. Instead, experts from a slew of think-tanks and bits of one government department attached to another puff out their chests and talk about countering this with that or investing over here in order to save future expenditure over there.
This particular conference was happening at the same time as the Russia-Georgia conflict which gave all participants a bit of extra swagger. Yet as one red-faced, overweight, middle-aged academic after another tottered up on stage to give us his insight, I felt a sense of vague nausea mixed with a sort of knotted rage in the pit of my stomach. While men were crawling in the dirt, bleeding, dying, committing terrible acts and witnessing the terrible acts of others, these puffed up Blimps had all the answers.
At the end of the day they gave it more jaw-jaw over canapes and champagne before sliding into an all-expenses paid hotel room while the poor bastards in the field – the statistics in their presentations – were slumping into holes they had scratched in the ground. The unlucky ones would never get out again, let alone receive a soothing wake-up call.
Of course it comes as no surprise that the well educated elite has it a bit better than the foot-sloggers who joined the military because it offered a rare opportunity to better themselves, but that doesn’t make the contrast or the airy way with which these people were able to hypothesise about the destinies of other men any more palatable. I’m sure not all of the people at the conference lacked a sense of the tenuous nature of human existence or appreciated the distance between what they recommended and the actions necessary to implement their plans, but a fair number of them gave that precise impression.
But as well as being disturbing, I have to admit it was also entertaining, in much the same way that my later encounter with The File On H would be entertaining. It had a grand guignol element in which things are so appalling they become darkly comic. Surely it wasn’t just me who was thinking this whole thing was ridiculous? There must be others, perhaps many others, yet instead of standing up and laughing at these lunatics we were sitting quietly, nodding and occasionally asking questions designed to show how clever we were, too.
One speaker in particular held my attention, the way a drag queen might hold the attention in a Weimar cabaret hall. He was a looming mass of affected mannerisms from the way he perched his half-moon spectacles on his head to his snorts of derision when he encountered any opinion that did not tally with his own. Most noticeable of all was the fact that his thinning, formless hair was dyed a bizarre claret colour, a sign of vanity that suggested his own self-image was somewhat removed from the lumpy figure he actually presented. He was billed as a leading expert in his field and not a session of the conference passed in which he was not involved either as speaker, commentator or inquisitor.
I became fascinated with this entirely unattractive figure who somehow seemed like the most important man in the room. A little digging into his background suggested he must practically live on a never-ending circuit of events similar to this one, punctuated by the odd publication for a think tank. I wondered what sort of man could lead such a life and how seductive it could be, while at the same time how easy it would be to gradually lose any sense of connection to the world beyond, and finally to lose even one’s own sense of a personal biography. It seemed to me he was not so much a person as a set of self-perpetuating drives: to be cleverer, more erudite, better informed, better respected than anyone else in the same secluded orbit.
Then I wondered what would happen if such a man was suddenly wrenched away from his accustomed life by absurd circumstance. What if he was forced to interact with the sort of people in the sort of places he would never usually consider as existing – the world in which no-one cares about potential flashpoints or energy security because they are too busy worrying about what they will eat or when they will be warm again. Thus my central character Viktor Draaks was born.
I had originally intended to be cruel to Viktor. I wanted to create a completely nihilistic character who stubbornly refused to learn anything from his ‘inferiors’, who obstinately stuck to his own prejudices and who rejected any form of friendship or love offered to him. I wanted the reader to feel startled that anyone could be so intransigent. That Viktor would have reached the end of the book just the same as he had started it. He would have been a sort of monster.
To my initial disappointment but eventual pleasure, Viktor did not let me do that to him. As he proceeded he did learn things and develop – not, it must be admitted, in any dramatic way, but enough I feel to make him a slightly more attractive and hopeful character by the end of the book than when he sets out on his strange Latvian odyssey.
The book is also in part a conscious reaction against received images of the Baltic states in general and Latvia in particular. Mention the word ‘Baltic’ to most outsiders and – to those who manage to avoid getting it confused with ‘Balkan’ – it conjures up an image of a cold, grey post-industrial wasteland populated by depressives, drunks, prostitutes and suicides who sit around in filthy bars drinking vodka and talking some sort of Slavic dialect.
The locals hate to be told this and refuse to believe it, as they would like ‘Baltic’ to represent folk dancing, log farmsteads, brave struggles for freedom and massed choirs. But it doesn’t. In fact this is not even what they think of the place themselves, but it is what they would like others to think of it. Ironically, anyone who points out quite how ill-informed and dismissive most foreigners are can expect some stiff criticism from the locals.
Sadly, the idea of the Baltics as a depressing place full of people moping around bemoaning their lot in life, history and geography is not helped by much of the contemporary culture that does make it to Western Europe and North America. The few arthouse films that get made tend to dwell on questions of existential angst with long scenes in which actors stare meaningfully into each others’ watery eyes. These are the sort of films that in truth are tedious to watch but which you feel obliged to say are “interesting” because you appreciate how difficult it is to get anything made at all.
It is worth noting an exception for Baltic children’s films which are vibrant, charming, clever and well-made, but sadly they never get seen in a West dominated by billion dollar kiddie franchises.
In 4LRL I wanted to show that Latvia is just as colourful, varied and silly as anywhere else; that all manner of people live here and that they are by no means uniform, grey or bereft of ideas. Latvians in my opinion have a temperament that has a natural affinity with farce (whereas I think the Lithuanians prefer slapstick and the Estonians irony) which makes the almost total lack of comic literature in the national canon all the more puzzling. Perhaps it comes from a fear of not being taken seriously. This is a counter-productive fear. Look at Dead Souls or Don Quixote for examples of comic literature that underpin rather than weaken national identity.
I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting my book stands even the remotest comparison with those masterpieces which along with The Good Soldier Schweik are probably my three favourite works of fiction. The elements 4LRL shares with (or steals from, if you prefer) all three of those works are obvious enough and in fact an idea I kept in mind throughout the writing was a sort of modern, Latvian Dead Souls. Initially I even made the central character a foreign property speculator travelling from farm to farm buying up cheap land during the boom years.
My main intention is to inject some comedy into Latvian culture. Yet despite my best efforts at levity, I expect the whole thing will be treated with extreme seriousness. Some commentators may say I am mocking the country or various individuals. I can only remind them that 4LRL is a work of fiction and that the foreigners in the book come out of it far worse than any of the Latvians. I am the one who should be offended.