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A man and his masks

SHROUD by John Banville, Picador, £ 3.50

John Banville has a certain obsession with men and the masks they put on to deceive or to manipulate reality. In a previous novel, The Untouchable, he created a fictional account based on the life of Anthony Blunt, art historian, spy and homosexual. In this novel, he approaches the life of a writer and critic who in his youth took on the identity of a friend who was dead to cover his own background.

Much of the story is appropriately set in Turin and the shroud on the writer’s past is removed bit by bit as if in slow motion. The narrator, Axel Vander, writer and critic by profession, arrives in Turin from California after he receives a letter. The letter writer, a woman from Antwerp, claims to know the real secret of Vander’s life, his real identity. Vander sets up a meeting with her in the Italian city.

Vander is old and ugly and lame in one leg. He has a rasping tongue and takes particular pleasure in being nasty to people. The woman he was meeting, Cass Cleave, is a young researcher who suffered, as Vander discovers, from severe epileptic fits.

The encounter takes the most unexpected turn, with Vander first, and then the woman, falling ill. Interspersed with events in Turin are recollections of Vander’s past. Yet it is not Vander’s past, since Vander was the name of his friend who died. It was a name the narrator took on to escape the Nazis. There is a graphic description here of the day the Nazis destroyed the houses and shops of Jews in Antwerp. Banville bases this description on first-hand accounts of kristallnacht in Germany.

The girl knows not only Vander’s real identity but also of the pro-Nazi articles the “real” Vander wrote for a newspaper before the Nazi invasion of Belgium. The exposure and the much-feared humiliation never happen. But readers learn as the narrative unfolds of the narrator’s escape from the holocaust, which took away his entire family, to London.

War time London was exciting because Vander was introduced to it by Lady Laura, a mysterious aristocrat who seduced and made a man of him. It was in London that Vander became a full-fledged conman, thief and blackmailer, with his eyes firmly set on America. When he stole from Laura, she had him badly beaten up by hired thugs; the injuries were so severe that Vander lost a leg. But he did get to America, where he made a name for himself. Vander thus wears many masks.

In Turin, in a bizarre way Vander and Cass are drawn together. But their relationship is haunted by a sense of doom. Vander’s memory and responses are muddled by alcohol. The lines between fact and fiction have become blurred. For him, “there exists neither ‘spirit’, nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions.” Cess’s grip over reality is similarly tenuous; her zeal to reveal all, tempered by a sense of genuine tenderness towards a vain and bitter old man.

Banville holds the disparate elements of the story together with a prose that is almost dream-like in its quality. It is lucid and evocative and remarkable in the way atmosphere described. Banville approaches moral complexities with an enviable ease. The narrative has a pull of its own which is as irrevocable as the tragedy it describes.

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