Book Review – Peace On Earth, The Ghost Road


An Unhappily Prosperous World

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

It must be that famed Polish sense of humour. It lies in the art of being dryly hilarious about something of the utmost seriousness. Even Roman Polanski made Dance Of The Vampires.

So it is with dear old Stanislaw Lem and his latest book Peace On Earth (Andre Deutsch – £14.99). He’s been writing the most extraordinarily imaginative books for decades now and as he gets older, so he grows funnier. Still living in Krakow – the universal acclaim for his books has yet to make him move to some Western literary hotbed – his books have been a bit thin on the pasture recently. So it was with some delight that Peace On Earth was received.

The story is typical Lem. Ijon Tichy, our unflappably stoic hero, has been on a secret mission to the moon which has not only left him with amnesia but two separate personalities, thanks to the two hemispheres of his brain being forcibly separated. With two personalities controlling each side of his body, he has to find out why this has happened and whether he might be in possession of some top secret military facts which his less dominant side is keeping under wraps.

Around this, Lem wraps a beautifully portrayed satire of espionage and military buildups. All weapons have been sent to the moon to fight amongst themselves, but the people back on Earth are missing them. Whoever finds out whether the moon is beyond intervention will have the world in their power. Lem leaves no moment of pomposity unturned as he wheedles every ridiculous possibility out of the paranoia and mistrust of an unhappily prosperous world.

And of course it’s all deadly serious. Tichy is as dislikable narrator as is possible. He treats everyone with a disdain which they don’t always deserve. Hollywood would describe this main character as ‘impossible to sympathise with’. I’m sure Lem wouldn’t have it any other way.

And though it all there’s Lem’s wit, dry enough to make a Martini. There is no character or situation which is not wrung through the mangle of Lem’s barbed observations. You know you are guaranteed another jaw dropping aspect of this world and a scathing scintilla of wit at the turn of the page.

Now after all that do I have to actually ask you to get this book? And while you’re at it, get his other books as well. They may not be as funny but they’re just as fun.

The Ghost Road (Penguin – £6.99) was the Booker Prize winner of last year, in which a supposedly serious novelist delivers the third part of what we must now call a trilogy. David Eddings look out.

Not that it stopped every critic in the land reacting with slavish hunger and effusive verbiage at the latest book from Pat Barker, the follow up to Regeneration and The Eye In the Door. Set in the closing months of World War I the narrative picks up once again on the story of Billy Prior, professional Interesting Character: homosexual, shellshock victim, asthmatic, working class officer, former spy and a bit of a nutcase deep down.

Surrounding him are a bunch of real people. Barker is nothing if not a name dropper and if you happened to have read Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That then you may recognise these bods. From Siegfried Sassoon to Wilfred Owen to Lewis Carroll, you too can wade in all that reflected glory. If Barker were to write a fourth book my money’s on Lawrence of Arabia being the special guest star.

Having an ‘in’ on these people, especially if you’ve read the previous two volumes, makes The Ghost Road very readable. A novelist can’t really go wrong with the first world war and Barker presents us with a paradoxical book, vibrating with the nervous energies of characters who have witnessed the war in all its horror but can’t avoid its almost macho pull. She also has a genuine talent for those little insights into the human condition, especially inherent class structures that Mary Wesley would chew her own foot off for.

Around all this sociology we have the figure of William Rivers (another real life character) the elderly psychiatrist who treated Prior and now spends his time drawing stocking tops on paralysis victims and thinking back over old times. Somehow he makes a connection between Charles Dodgson, the vicar who told him stories when he was a child, and the strange rituals of a group of ex-headhunters in Africa where he was assigned as a student doctor.

If all this has already got your attention then that’s what the book is supposed to do. Barker writes for literary reviewers in Hampstead who are eternally relieved not to have to read another turgidly written ‘novella’ about how a ‘relationship’ went ‘wrong’. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Eye In The Door, a competition deliberately set up to provide an alternative to the unreadable rubbish which gets nominated for the Booker Prize each year. Then she went and won the Booker over the seemingly unassailable Salman Rushdie, a provocative gesture on behalf of the judges. But through all the cultural politics Pat Barker is nothing more than the sensible person’s Iris Murdoch.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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