Monday, 14 February 2011

Pictures at an Exhibition by DM Thomas

The early chapters of this novel are strong but it becomes overly complicated in subsequent sections and the plot increasingly convoluted.
Thomas is good at planting information and letting things slowly unravel so that the reader is constantly trying to second-guess him on the true identities of his key players.
Unfortunately the book's blurb tells you exactly what the big twist is in the first section so that Thomas's slow and careful scene-setting that should result in a jolt of horror as you realise what is happening and where is completely undermined.
Two men talking, one of them psychoanalysing the other. The analysts is clearly in a subservient position to his patient.
Visual clues, the smell of smoke constantly in the air and the names of characters - Galewski and Dr Lorenz - and Freudian analysis are all dropped in until about 20 pages in Thomas cranks up the gear and we realise that the action is taking part in Auschwitz, the analyst is a Jewish prisoner and that his patient is one of the commanders responsible for the ongoing massacre.
Thomas details the full litany of atrocities that took place there - the
production-line slaughter of men, women and children and the medical experiments on live humans.
Galewski, who is to an extent collaborating with the concentration camp authorities (soley in the name of staying alive) is not unsympathetic to Lorenz who is suffering from nightmares and a psychosomatic ailments. These turn out not to be the result of participation in the mass destruction of human beings but because of a childhood trauma.
When section one ends, we find ourselves in England in the early 1990s when a new ensemble of characters take up the narration through a series of first-person narratives in the form of letters and counselling sessions.
From the start (and because of the blurb of course) the reader is trying to work out which of them, if any, are Galewski and Lorenz, or one of the other characters we met in part one.
Thomas inserts a series of clues and false trails in against a background of
European high art - Edvard Munch and Gustav Mahler - and Freudian analysis.
Coming after the intensity of the first section the following chapters are soap
operish and sometimes just silly and the lives of the characters tedious. The dramas that the author creates for them are... well dramas, convoluted ones at that.
The combination of Freud and sex are nothing new in a DM Thomas novel. Pictures at an Exhibition has its moments and up until the very end the identities of its main protagonists are still only being hinted at. However, despite a strong start the narrative seems to run out of steam, regaining its momentum in a series of fits and spurts but never quite regaining its early promise.
For my other DM Thomas reviews click here.

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