Friday, December 21, 2012



                I accidentally learned of a novel named "C" reading some newspaper. The brief description intrigued me so I decided to read it. It was only later that I found out who is Tom McCarthy and that the particular novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I'm no expert on modern literature, and never even heard of the other contestants but must say I'm puzzled as to why "C" has such high acclaim.

                The novel tells a story of Serge Carrefax. His life is a pretty unusual one. Born in England at the end of the 19th century to a father who runs a school for deaf children and is a front runner in a field of wireless communication, and a mother who is dedicated to making and selling silk and even more so to her laudanum, Serge spent most of his childhood with his older sister whose suicide left a great mark on him. He went on to become a soldier in WWI, a student of architecture in London, and a sort of spy for the British government in Egypt. He spent hours listening to radio waves containing Morse code messages, months getting treatment in an Eastern European spa, he flied over the fronts day after day killing Germans and ended up as their prisoner, lived his college days high on cocaine and heroin, and ended up in a ludicrous spy game at the foot of the pyramids. Yet, the novel isn't about the events of Serge's life but the way he perceives them.

                Serge was born with a caul, a sort of veil covering a baby's head at birth, and lived most of his life like it was never removed. That invisible membrane could only be broken through sex and drugs, which allowed him to see more clearly. But even then he couldn't overcome the main barrier in his life, that in communication. Communication is in fact the main theme of the novel. From radio waves and mirror signals to talking with the dead and codes in language. Serge communicates all the time, but never directly. When he's having sex with Tania, a masseuse suffering from polio, Audrey, a drug addicted actress, or any other of the girls, he does it from behind, like the shadows he saw as a child (his sister and Widsun?), avoiding the intimacy of the look in the eyes. He talks with a lot of people, yet that talk is somehow hollow, as if he operates on some other frequency. That is why he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, they've taken him places he felt more at home at, among the bugs and two-dimensional shapes throughout the labyrinth of his mind.

                There is a lot more that could be written about Serge. I'm not sure I even understood it all. McCarthy writes interestingly and his words convey multiple meanings, not all easily identified. As his main character, the author also doesn't communicate directly but through a series of codes, with a whole stack of recurring motifs. While it was an interesting read, and it definitely kept part of its secrets hidden from me, I somehow doubt I'll be coming back to it. The meanings and messages it transmits are so disparate that I just can't see a satisfying payoff coming from it. Maybe we just operate on a different frequency.

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