Ludmilla’s Broken English by D.B.C. Pierre
26/02/06, The Observer
DBC Pierre’s second novel, Ludmila’s Broken English, appears to be a fictional working-out of Marx’s wry epigram, ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.’ Some times, it is a matter of Pierre’s choice of genres and modes: on the level of its skittering surface, political and personal tragedies, always enmeshed and inseparable, find expression as farce. At a deeper level, there is a darker historical vision at work: Pierre’s meditation on contemporary global politics is so bleak that farce seems to offer at least a thin mask of protection, as much to the writer as to the reader.
The stage where Pierre’s excoriatingly moral vision is enacted is correspondingly ambitious, too. First of all, we have Britain plc, where empty dreams of Cool Britannia have given way to wholesale privatisation, especially of the health service, and terrorists have mounted their first attacks on London. In the north of the country, a care home for the severely disabled – named Albion House with some satirical relish – has been privatised and has released our protagonists, Blair and Gordon-Marie (‘Bunny’) Heath, a pair of conjoined twins separated thirty-three years after birth, into ‘care in the community’. Secretly whisked away to London, they are left to make a foray into the outside world they’ve never encountered. The twins pull in opposite directions: the perennially priapic Blair wants to make the most of free-market late capitalism and its attendant spirits, the Anglo-American spin on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opportunities for ‘self-empowerment’ and sex, while all Bunny wants is institutional English food within the comfortable and familiar womb of Albion House.
The second setting is Ublilsk, a ‘compacted heap of dung and snow’ in the folds of south Caucasus where a stray bullet from marauding secessionist troops is easier to come by than bread and the pall that hangs in the air is smoke from dung fuel. The amorphous border of this post-Soviet mini-republic is about to be changed by the steady incursion of Gnez troops who want to attach it to their incipient country, Gnezvarikstan. Here, young, beautiful Ludmila Derev dreams of escaping the bone-grinding squalor and misery of her life and family and flitting away to the superabundant joys of the West with her lover, Mikhail Bukinov. A wildly inventive and manic dance of events sees Ludmila post her picture on a Russian brides website, triggering a mind-boggling collision of the East and the West.
The book has in its savage sights everything from the hijacking of democracy by corporate interests to the malignant hegemony of the Anglo-American order, from shifting and slithering notions of freedom and exploitation to the great betrayal of the neediest by history. What a shame, then, that this fight on behalf of the angels’ corner is let down by a prose-style mannered to the point of gratuitous murkiness. The whole novel feels as if it has been written first in a normal way, then each sentence tampered with to produce a style that could be thought of as original and strikingly different. The result, instead, is an unwholesome spectrum from the purple to the periphrastic. Nobody ‘looks’ or ‘sees’ in this novel; they ‘send insulting eyes’, ‘curl an eye’, ‘beach a fat eye’, ‘brows find some mauve distance’, ‘throw a volley of blinks’, ‘hang a dull eye’, ‘park a grimace’, ‘poke deadly eyes’. The incongruity of the similes and metaphors point to a severely effortful straining. What is one to make of an unintentionally hilarious sentence such as, ‘… while the tendrils of Ludmila’s being were entwined close to the basic rod of her spirit, their rod was bare’? Or, ‘The Heaths moved uncertainly, washed along like sperm by a flow of people dressed for other places’? What on earth does ‘The sight of his body in the bath … didn’t invite reality’s pea to its cup’ mean? And ‘in the aura known to rise off brutal shifts of fortune, known to lace its gas with arabesques like squealings of Armenian clarinet, she should’ve sensed trouble’s nest was made’ moves from the bathetic to the ridiculous in one tangle of mixed metaphors. The writing displays this opacity throughout, as if the arrows shot to skewer the very center of meaning had all fallen awry and off the mark, creating a nebulous thicket of misses around the heart of the matter.
There’s a lot here to be awed by – the jokes mostly crackle off the page, the laughter of despair has never had an angrier or funnier source, the political satire is like uninsulated electricity, the grand guignol ending and the twists of the coda are some of the most shocking in current fiction – but the failed stylistic attempt to defamiliarise both language and the reality it embodies deals it a fatal blow.