Friday, November 14, 2008

Details

John Lawton is a big-picture guy, as you may have gathered from my discussion of Second Violin or from overviews of Lawton's earlier novels about wartime and postwar England.

But a big picture is built of details, and Lawton deploys several to canny, devastating satirical effect. My favorite so far concerns the spunky, adorably bluff tailor Billy Jacks, who was, however, born with a different name. Here, he and the novel's upper-class co-protagonist Rod Troy are stating their names upon arrival at an internment camp for enemy aliens:
"And I'm Rod Troy ... of Hampstead."

"It helps," said Drax, "and it will not detain us long, if we state for the record our city of origin. ... Arthur Kornfeld, of Vienna, keeps records for us. We all feel it helps to know where we all come from. To have something written down by us rather than by the British. Helps us not to ... not to lose touch. A matter of identity. No small matter you will agree."

Rod did agree. It was a matter of identity that had brought him here in the first place.

"In that case," he said, perfectly willing to play the game, "I'm Rodyon Troy, also of Vienna. Indeed, I think you'll find more than a few of us are."

Drax stuck out both hands to shake one of Rod's, beaming at him as though he'd found a long-lost son. Behind him Rod heard Jacks plonk his gladstone bag on the table and say, "Billy Jacks, Stepney Green."

Kornfeld said, "It won't hurt, you know. And we're all in the same boat."

Billy shot a surly glance in Rod's direction, looked back at Kornfeld.

"OK, OK, whatever `Ampstead says. Abel Jakobson, Danzig. Now, where's me bleedin' tea?"
That these two emblematic English characters – upper-class toff and plucky cockney – have been deprived of their freedom by their own government ought to make readers squirm. That the latter reveals his "alien" origin in the most earthy and emblematically English speech imaginable is funny, of course, but also the most moving declaration of national character I can think of in any recent fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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1 Comments:

Blogger Logan Lamech said...

Sounds great, will have to check it out.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 16, 2008  

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