Friday, 7 September 2007

the loneliness of the long distance runner

Moths by Karl Manders

The blurb on the back of this début novel describes it as 'a dazzling, potent novel about moths, running, jazz, the Siberian gulag, and seizing the moment'. This quirky list and the tone of it made me feel a little uneasy. At its heart however Moths is a novel about a Father and his son, but where other writers have dealt with the fraught relationships between them, Manders' places his two charcters miles apart leading separate lives through the tumult of 1930's Europe.

Cornelius Van Baerle, successful industrialist, sires a son whilst away on a business trip. He later returns with the boy and places him in the care of his childless sister in Gelderland, a Dutch province. Overjoyed at this answer to her prayers she exclaims 'He's a doll boy, so tiny and light. A doll boy'. And so Dolboy is named. Growing up in this rural idyll Dolboy develops a talent for running and whilst flying through the forests one day stumbles upon a summerhouse. He discovers the interior alive with hundreds of moths and it is here later that he meets Mirjam heir to the estate and the object of his affections as he grows up.

The war meanwhile has benefited Cornelius' business and he is pressured by the resistance to undertake a journey East once again to bear witness to the Nazi death camps and show his patriotism. It is journey which leads him to be captured by the liberating Red Army and eventually to the gulag.

The narrative continues on these two separate tracks and the image of parallel lines, train tracks and the question of whether the paths of Father and son will cross again is what keeps it moving forwards. The opening of the novel is a little confused but once Manders has established his rhythm it moves along with an almost fable like quality building momentum and emotive power. He is great when writing of Cornelius' experience as a member of the jazz band that keeps him safe from punishment and particularly strong when it comes to the lives of those in the gulag. I found myself wanting more of that than the growing pains of Dolboy but the two courses of the novel have an inevitability which culminates with powerful emotion.

A novel which ends better than it starts is a rare thing these days. Manders writing is enjoyable, atmospheric and builds well but it is the steady pounding of Dolboys footsteps rather than the vital beat of jazz that dictates the novel's rhythm


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