Monday, October 29, 2007


In my bathroom I keep a basket containing paperbacks by the Durrells, both Lawrence and Gerald, for “occasional” reading. When people go into my bathroom, they tend to stay a while.

These two writers represent two modes of my own writing, one the humorous tales of animals and the other a kind of hallucinatory and oversensuous account of life. They are, of course, brothers and very much part of a kind of Mediterranean ex-pat libertarian scene, not unlike that of Marguerite Duras in SE Asia. Recently I finished “Tunc,” by Lawrence.

First, after noting that L’s titles are generally one-word and keys to the plot, I guess it’s a good idea to settle what “Tunc” means. No one is named Tunc in this story. Wikipedia says it
“is a Latin expression in common use in the English language. It means Now for then,”. “which theoretically applies to acts that are allowed to be done after the time when they should have been done with a retroactive effect. . . . In the probating of an estate, if real property (such as lands, mineral interests, etc.) are discovered after the Final Decree or Order, a nunc pro tunc order can include these after-discovered lands or assets into the estate, as well as clarify how those assets were meant to be distributed. . . . A corporation may have been created by an individual, but since a corporation has the standing in law of a person (although not a natural person), it is possible for its human creator to go bankrupt and for the assets of the corporation to be seized to satisfy unpaid taxes. Then, if others bought the assets from the tax authority and the corporation shell passed into other hands, it is possible for the person who bought the assets to also buy the corporation shell and upon payment of corporate franchise taxes, for that individual to claim that the corporation is the original corporation with the original assets.”

In addition, according to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “The word tunc is Latin for "then." Historically, as a famous page in the Irish "Book of Kells" has made us aware, Tunc is the first word of a sentence in the Vulgate edition of the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Then there were crucified with him two thieves." As used in this novel, the word tunc suggests both the past and the future.

At least one reviewer identified this book as Durrell’s “1984,” an attempt to describe a dystopia in the future. It’s that in spades. Whatever the “inventions” that the hero is supposed to have made, they are so close to today’s computer devising that I had to keep looking at the year it was published, 1968. It sounds like “The Matrix,” perhaps known here as “The Firm.” The epigram is “deux fois deux quatre, c’est un mur” from Dostoievesky, “Vois Souterraine” (“Two Times Two is Four” and a “mur” is a wall, as in “stone-walling.”) Lawrence was the brother wrestling with relativity, wherein two times two might mean anything. Gerald was the one trying to save the animals, the conservationist. Both were deadly opposed to authoritarian impositions and boundaries.

Necessarily, given the circumstances, I read “Tunc” episodically all summer, parallel to a more formal and sustained reading of “The Raj Quartet,” which spent the summer in the front room, but they are creatures of a similar era and did not clash. Both immerse the reader in an exotic world where not even the characters are very sure what’s going on, but that has a immense resonance with the Iraqi misadventure reaching out to Afghanistan while our mighty leaders try to spin, erase, buy out, deny, punish and control. An author, of course, can start over in the next book, reincarnating everyone as though laying out the cards again in a new session of solitaire. “Koepgen used to say that human life is an anthology of states; chronological progression is an illusion. And to be punished for what one does not remember except in dreams is our version of the tragedy the Greeks invented.”

Short bits of reading are a good way to tackle this book. There are two long set-pieces that really struck me. The first is Caradoc’s impromptu speech -- he was expected at a kind of salon, but drunk and forgetful, therefore presumably likely to tell the truth. He is, as he claims, “the fruit of a mixed mirage.” For pages he explores his idea of what “womb to tomb” might mean and how that vision contributes to our cultural and intellectual pursuits.

The other is the first meeting of Benedicta, the women who seduces him into joining the firm, then marries him, becoming pregnant and unavailable. She is presented as a falconer, which -- since I regularly read <> and <> -- has enormous resonance for me these days. “Now she pulled on an extra sleeve and worked her hand into a gauntlet. Somewhere in the shadows there came the dying fluttering of some small bird, a quail perhaps, and I saw with disgust that she was busy breaking up the body with her fingers into small tidbits. She suddenly began uttering a curious bubbling, crooning sound, uttering it over and over again as she drew a long plume softly over the legs of the peregrine; then the gloved hand teased the great scissor beak with the bleeding meat and the bird snapped and gorged. As it ate she reiterated the single word in the same crooning bubbling fashion. Slowly, with the greatest circumspection, she coaxed the falcon onto her wrist and turned to face me, smiling now.

I could hardly tell you the plot of “Tunc” but the hints about crucifixion and thieves as well as the convolutions of law that make a “firm” or corporation (corpus meaning flesh, meat) more real than a human being, that allow a person to be punished for a mistake made long ago and not recognized as such at the time -- all this becomes relevant in an aesthetic atmosphere that moves from the ancient dryness of Arab lands for the musty plush and damp of more modern mansions in Britain. Thus, it is a chilling book. One doesn’t mind that in August in Montana. But perhaps I’ll go back to Gerald for a while.

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