Memoirs of a
by Martin Bax
"And what I've tried to
explain is that if the hands reject you how can you expect what lies
behind the hands to reach out to you?"
Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum
The gone world goes in the first story in this collection (The Turned-in, Broken-up and Gone World),
not because of a nuclear winter or the sea-rise of global warming, but
through a tilt in the laws of thermodynamics. Increasing entropy trumps
everything, and as a result human bodies break down into simple
molecules, carbon dioxide, water, some phosphate.... All of this is
startlingly introduced in the story's opening lines:
"It was Caroline
who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when
his penis broke off at the root." But more startling still is the way
Bax then continues, calmly detailing Caroline's past and generally
giving the impression that a broken penis is just one significant facet
of a sexual encounter, no more or less important than any other.
same relaxed, distant, almost Mandarin, tone pervades the rest of the
book. It works better in some stories than others. In the case of The
Turned-in, there is no final explanation as to why the world fell
apart, or any clue why the likes of Caroline and the narrator survived.
By the end of the story's emotionless narration you suspect the gone
world went because of its inhabitants' lack of interest - in anything.
The same kind of problem affects Journeyings, in which the matching,
related dreams of a man and his lover are described. The dreams unravel
pointlessly, to a pointless end and tell us nothing about the two
dreamers (who are described so little they are less people than ideas).
The overall impression is that of a writer who has become bored with
conventional reality, but is too tired to replace it with anything
But when Bax sticks - more or less - to the real world
he is more successful, and at its best this collection both raises
expectations and then successfully delivers. Bax has an easy,
authoritative writing style, and a knack of producing openings that ask
for, and bring about, the reader's involvement ("A man has placed a hat
on the shelving where we want to put our drinks,", "'You can practice
describing the scenery,' you said as we parted,"). More often than not
involvement is rewarded, as Bax's eclectic mind switches both location
and approach as he takes us from the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec (Le Magasin des Gants)
and a countess finding a chance encounter has drawn her back to a
sexually-charged period of her youth, to a British V.I.P. in India (Your Hands do not Permit an Attachment),
on the edge of sexual involvement but finding India throwing back at
him his lack of connection to the world. The official
function/conference-attending bird of passage appears here twice more,
in America (The Bells are Ringing) and in A Trip to Dublin,
and you wonder if he represents Bax's ideal life: the opportunity for
cool observation and chance sex, the freedom from attachments.
However, while Bax's tone is cool and dry, his impulses are often playful. For instance in the wonderful Seconds Out,
Henry Jones, bored of his life, bored of his wife, stumbles on a rogue
TV channel where two naked wrestlers (one male, one female) face off
with the aim being, "to induce a state approaching orgasm in one's
opponent so that he or she begged to be taken." The end of this
very short story is pitch perfect.
And then right at the finish Bax plays it straight. In Brussels during World War Two (When Childhood Ends)
Pierre leaves his toys on the floor as the Germans enter the
city. Later he's evacuated to his cousins in the country. All
of this is seen through his child's POV, with the result that we only
realise Pierre is Jewish when his cousins' house is daubed with
whitewash stars. The power of the story comes not from what Bax
shows us but what he doesn't. We have just glimpses: Pierre's
mother with a Star of David pinned to her coat. And in the end we
have Pierre himself as a serious - possibly joyless - young man, and as
the story circles back to its beginning, we see not toy soldiers on the
floor but the corpse of a childhood.
So what to do with Martin
Bax? Apart from reading him, perhaps we should bury one copy of
the collection in a time capsule. And then long after the balloon
goes up, when whatever aliens have eventually come to pick over our
bones, they will find this - a testament, both to the on-going
peculiarity of the gone world and to one of its most singular minds.
|Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo,
grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has
published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's
Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Zahir and GUD among others.