Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Robert's Alibi by Declan Burke-Kennedy

Despite some pretty fundamental flaws in his story-telling technique Burke-Kennedy's 1988 novel has drawn me back to it a number of times.
Geoffry, the central character and sometimes first-person narrator, is an Irish novelist living in a mountain cabin in the Basque Country.
Although on the French Pyrenees his cabin is close to the Spanish border and the separatist conflict, which was much more virulent when the novel was published, occasionally impinges.
Indeed the historical identity of the Basque people – described by Burke-Kennedy as the equivalent of Europe’s native Americans who were subsequently displaced and marginalised by later waves of invaders – is one of the many layered themes of this novel.
Linguistic similarities between obscure Tibetan dialects and Euskara (the Basque’s indigenous language) are posited, although evidence is never presented.
Slightly more convincing is the similarity between the four pronged Basque Lauburu found on ancient tombs and the Tibetan swastika (an ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbol that existed long before it was hijacked by the Nazis – see below).
Geoffry’s solitude in his mountain retreat is interrupted by the arrival of an Irish woman, whose name we never learn, and her son Julian.
Although he has no idea who she is, Geoffry soon becomes aware that she is very familiar with him and believes that he was her late husband Robert's best friend who used to come and spend his holidays with Geoffry.
Geoffry plays along, initially hoping to learn more information and recall if he had ever actually met Robert, but he is also attracted by her physically and by her obvious vulnerability, and is reluctant to disillusion her in case she leaves.
He learns that Robert is missing and presumed dead following an avalanche while climbing in the Himalayas and that his widow wants Geoffry to edit the manuscript of a book he was writing about the region, its religions, links to the Basque Country and even European Druidism.
As Geoffry becomes further implicated in Robert's deception he and the widow work on the manuscript which initially fascinates him then repulses him. Parts of Geoffry's own past start to click into place – an affair with a Basque photographer called Noelle who took part in photographic expeditions to the Himalayas and who often disappeared out of Geoffry's life with no explanation.
While Geoffry has become complicit in providing an alibi to Robert’s deceptions against his wife, he gradually comes to the conclusion that he has also been deceived.
He in turn embarks on a deception, luring Noelle back to his bed by making her believe that Robert is still alive and that Geoffry is the only person who knows where he is hidding out.
The fairly soap-operish storyline and the author’s frequent insistence on ‘telling’ us that Geoffry is an enigmatic solipsists to whom women are constantly shooting “interested glances” and preening themselves to make him notice them, do grate slightly.
We also get an extended rehearsal of Geoffry's Nietzschean ideas, which just smacks too much of the author trying to tell us what he believes.
This is more a novel of ideas – perhaps Burke-Kennedy wanted to write the book that his fictional character Robert did. A quick google did reveal some speculation on ethnic links between ancient Tibetans and Basques.
There is a good novel in here trying desperately trying to get out but that is burdened down with simply trying too hard to make its central character Geoffry appear more interesting.
A Basque Lauburu
A Tibetan swastika

No comments: