Company of liars By Karen Maitland,
I picked up this 550-page “novel of the plague” with just apprehensions. Artists and writers have been morbidly fascinated by the Black Death. Medieval chroniclers left behind grisly accounts of the pestilence, the clergy attributed it to divine retribution, while painters like Brueghel were struck by the infernal suffering it unleashed on the masses. In the 18th century, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional record of the Great Plague of 1664-65 that devastated London. Albert Camus published his philosophical allegory, La Peste, in 1947, based on the cholera epidemic that wiped out hundreds in the Algerian town of Oran in 1849. Closer in time, we have Year of Wonders (2001) by Geraldine Brooks, a psychological thriller set in the backdrop of the 17th-century plague in Derbyshire.
Karen Maitland has thus ventured into well-trodden ground. She has waded across a sea of literary influences, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Umberto Eco, and come up with a book that is, if not original, then at least eminently readable. With a gripping, well-worked-out plot, sharply defined characters, and free-flowing language (sounding, at times, a little odd in people belonging to 14th-century England), she has delivered the goods for a successful bestseller. Maitland judiciously avoids over-indulging the grotesque, an easy temptation in a plague-novel. She also averts the standard perils of a ‘historical novel’. Allusions to ecclesiastical and economic reforms by Edward III, or the persecution of Jews and homosexuals are intelligently woven into the narrative, and we are spared tedious lessons in social history.
The novel begins in the obscure town of Kimlington on Midsummer’s Day, 1348: “The air was fetid with sweat and the belches, farts and stinks from stomachs made sour by too much ale.” The tale is told by an enigmatic camelot, “a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers”, selling fake relics to innocent villagers. A repository of dark secrets, this man with a deeply scarred face and one eye has the practised guile of Chaucer’s Pardoner. But beyond his canny business sense and an unspeakable past, he remains singularly nondescript until the end — an elderly, wise and benevolent voice. As the pestilence breaks out in the south, he flees eastwards, and gathers along the way a band of followers. Starting with the rune-reader, Narigorm (“a child with eyes of ice”), he is joined by a healer, a master-musician and his apprentice, an absconding couple, a choleric magician and a storyteller, who is half-swan, half-man. One is reminded of the fantastic assembly in the World’s End inn in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.
This bizarre company runs away not only from the plague — like the nobility in Boccaccio’s Decameron or the travellers in Bergman’s Seventh Seal — but also from their murky pasts. In this group of nine, seven are tormented by deadly lies they have been forced to embrace. Haunted and hunted by memories, they tell revealing stories, which are never directly autobiographical. There is always an edge of mystery to their self-portraits, leaveing the audience suspended between belief and fantasy. And the stories need not always be told. Sometimes they push their tellers into unforeseen circumstances, and force them to live out their nightmares.
An intricate network of chance and coincidence holds this company of liars together. Hounded by memory, trapped by intrigue, love, hate and desire, only a few manage to escape their destinies.