Sam Goldwyn was, of course, wrong. He is reported to have told one of his film makers: ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’ (There are numerous versions of this line, and I’ve also seen it attributed to Frank Capra, which leads me to doubt; but that’s not the point here.) Every film, every television show, stage play, novel, has a message. The message may be buried or oblique, but it is there. Every narrative we encounter tells us something about the world and its people, it has to, because no writer can be so totally divorced from everything and everyone that nothing external can shape the ideas and perceptions that constitute the narrative, and no reader can be so totally isolated that they cannot respond to those ideas and perceptions. It has to, because any writer so isolated would have nothing to write, any reader so isolated would have no reason to read.
Note that I say nothing about the nature of the message, the quality of it, how well or ill it is presented, whether it is mind-numbingly obvious or so obscure that it is practically impossible to disentangle. Nor do I say that the message is necessarily intentional on the part of the writer, or that it is something the reader is necessarily looking for in the narrative. I simply say that the message is part of the DNA of narrative.
And we’re aware of this, though perhaps not consciously. Just think of the number of narrative that themselves concern or hinge upon the conveyance of a message. Irina’s diary left for Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the messages carried innocently by The Go-Between; the way that Citizen Kane is constructed around researching a news story; the books that shape the events of Don Quixote. Time and again, the stories we watch and read are themselves about stories. The message is the medium.
Which brings me to What Lot’s Wife Saw by the Greek writer Ioanna Bourazopoulou, translated by Yiannis Panas. This is a novel about conveying a message, and the message that is conveyed is not what we read.
[As an aside, I abhor spoiler warnings, they are an affront to serious critical examination of literature. But in what follows I will primarily be talking about the very last chapter of the novel, because it is impossible to discuss the central message of the book without examining that chapter. So if you are one of those people who gets upset by spoilers, go away now and do something else.]
When I commented on the book immediately after finishing it, I said it was ‘hermetically cut off from reality.’ My major problem with the book is that it is all about a message, but the whole book is constructed to prevent us receiving that message. We are told about it, we cannot share it. As an analogy, think about a classic detective novel: we are given clues throughout the novel, but we do not know the identity of the killer until all the suspects are brought together at the very end and the detective explains what the clues were and how they add up and who done it. Well, that’s the theory. Of course, if the author is playing fair with the readers, it is perfectly possible for the reader to arrive at the solution before the detective. If you are skilled at reading detective novels, this is quite likely, in fact. Any detective writer worth their salt, at least any writer who does not wish to lose the respect of their readers, will play fair; they will not announce that the killer is someone who has never appeared in the story to that point, they will not rely on a clue that was not at least implicit in the text. Although Bourazopoulou constructs her novel on the model of a classic detective story, I’m not convinced that she plays fair with the reader in this way.
Let me begin with the first character we meet, Phileas Book (the names scream out to us that we should not take this in any realist sense). Book is a solitary, the survivor of a global catastrophe in which most of Europe as far north as Paris has been inundated. The nature of this inundation is less significant than we might, at first, think, and in strictly geographical terms it really doesn’t make sense. But then, this is a fable, such issues of verisimilitude don’t arise. Book suffers survivor guilt, and as some sort of recompense has devised a form of crossword known as an Epistleword. The Epistleword is the key to unravelling the story, but it is also the first stumbling block, because we never know how an Epistleword works.
There is hand-waving, of course, but this is designed more to obfuscate than to clarify. We are repeatedly told, for example, that the shape of an Epistleword is a meandros. A meandros, the word has the same root as ‘meander’, is the decorative border also known as a Greek Key pattern, a continuous line forming a repeated motif. A meandros makes a good pattern for a crossword-type puzzle, but we are told that the Epistleword is three-dimensional, and that the key solution forms a diagonal. There is no diagonal in a meandros. If there is already a disconnect between what we are told and what we are meant to understand, the puzzle deepens when we try to comprehend what constitutes an Epistleword. There are no clues, instead there are seven letters (hence ‘epistle’) from which some interconnected essence is distilled which then gives us the phrases that complete the blanks of the puzzle. How we do this, what this essence might consist of, is never made clear. We are given repeated glimpses of Book using variations in handwriting, ink stains, indications of where the writer broke off and then resumed, and other such paratextual clues in interpreting the letters, but there is no suggestion of how such clues might be incorporated into a newspaper puzzle, and we are certainly given no such clues in the letters that form the bulk of this novel. So the way to arrive at the solution of the novel is through Epistlewords, but that way is not made available to us.
Book is hired by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five (the closest thing we see to a government in this novel) to bring his Epistleword skills to bear on six letters written by the participants in strange and violent events in their Colony. The geological upheaval that has drowned most of Europe has, around the Dead Sea, uncovered a supply of violet salt which is addictive and highly profitable, and totally controlled by the Seventy-Five through their Colony. Unfortunately, the Colony is completely isolated. No plants grow and no animals, other than human, can live in the salty atmosphere. The sun is perpetually hidden behind dense clouds, and catastrophic sandstorms blow up frequently. There are no land connections, aeroplanes cannot fly through this atmosphere, ships take ages to crawl through the dense saline ocean. There is no electricity or gas, no radio or digital communications with the outside world. All lighting, all power, is provided by fish oil. Communication between the Consortium and the Colony’s Governor is by letter enclosed in a sealed green box that is delivered every fortnight. The Colony is, of course, Sodom, the Biblical references that recur with stunning regularity throughout the novel (not to mention the title, of course) could not make this more blatant. The hermetic seal that closes the novel off from reality is made explicit in this setting. It is an artificial world for an artificial story brim full of portents of doom.
The Governor’s rule is absolute, but he is supported by a council of six people, each permitted to wear a Purple Star that gives them special privileges. The six all changed their identity when they arrived in the Colony, so they each have two names, though they each also have specific job identifiers: the Wife, the Secretary, the Judge, the Captain of the Guards, the Surgeon, the Priest. Each has a criminal past, and at best minimal competence for the job they supposedly hold, they are liars, they are unreliable narrators; that much is clear from the start. The only question is: how much of what they tell us is a lie?
They find the Governor dead in bed one morning, and they have no instructions on how to proceed in such circumstances, so they panic. They try to keep the death secret; they cut up the body and burn it in the kitchen of the Governor’s mansion; they try to force open the green box. Then a strange new Governor appears, as if from nowhere, but instead of turning into their salvation, he secrets himself within the mansion and leaves them to get on with things. The new Governor gives them orders that bring chaos and disruption to the Colony, they see a strange black ship that no-one else can see, they transport the salt to strange dumping grounds in the middle of the desert, they find their weaknesses and their strengths being amplified, and they come to convince themselves that the Seventy-Five have supernatural powers. Eventually, they conspire to murder the new Governor, then each, separately, writes their account of what happened. It is (extracts from) these accounts that we read, and that Book is called on to interpret.
And yet, not only is this a sealed world, isolated from everything including plausibility, but everything we are told about it is a lie. It turns out that the whole exercise was a concoction addressed directly to Book. I have great difficulty seeing how they could manufacture such a set of lies so that only Book could read the clues and see the truth. I have even greater difficulty seeing why they should do that. It appears that the whole exercise has been orchestrated by the Judge’s daughter, who is also the Governor’s maid, to help her get away from the influence of the Seventy-Five. It is a rather laboriously constructed plot for that, dependent on Book behaving in a certain way, and yet what he does seems to play a very small part in her escape.
In the end, you admire the cleverness of the book. It is a very complexly organised plot that depends on a fairly steady stream of reversals. But you cannot engage with the characters, because we cannot know them, we learn nothing genuine about them. And though the message within the book gets through, I’m not sure that the message of the book gets through. Or rather, if it does, it doesn’t seem to say a lot. An awful lot of intelligence has gone into the structure of this book, and there are moments of quite compelling writing, but it is a great deal of effort for such little reward.