Friday, 31 August 2012

Review: The Guard by Peter Terrin

Have you ever heard of the European Union Prize for Literature?  Oxymoronic as it sounds, this award actually exists, and in 2010 it was won (in its prestigious Belgian division) by Peter Terrin's De Bewaker.  This week the book has finally been released in English, titled The Guard, and I was at the front of the (ebook) queue to find out what all the fuss was about.

Terrin's novel tells the story of Michel, a guard in the basement of a luxury block of flats, in a very probably dystopian future.  I say 'very probably dystopian' because poor Michel finds himself confined to the aforementioned basement, guarding the building (with the assistance of fellow-guard Harry) even when almost all of the residents have mysteriously abandoned the building.

The premise of the book is what initially caught my eye.  It resembles a thought experiment - what would you do if you were trapped in a basement with one other person, with no idea if the rest of the world was existing as normal, or indeed even existing?  As the novel begins to unfold, and it becomes clearer that something is very wrong in the outside world, Terrin's novel clearly begins to satirise the more fundamental aspects of religious faith - even when all evidence points to the two guards being abandoned, Harry insists that they are being tested by an all-powerful Organisation which wants the best for them, and will reward them for their diligence.  All very interesting.

The problem, unfortunately, is that this intriguing premise proves about as entertaining as being stuck in a featureless basement for an indefinite amount of time.  I confess, a big factor in my enjoyment of books is the appeal of the characters: the last time I read a book where I couldn't identify with any character, I loathed the book.  The Guard falls into the same trap.

Michel, our narrator, is extraordinarily dim.  Harry quickly becomes psychotic.  We are left in the company of an ignorant and unquestioning protagonist, watching the destructive behaviour of his companion without really even bothering to question it.  This might be interesting on a theoretical level, but as the utter eventlessness of the novel unfolds, it quickly loses it's appeal.

That's not to say there isn't some good stuff here.  Terrin works hard to create a very plausible sense of paranoia and isolation, as the two guards construct routines and coping mechanisms to deal with their crisis.  You might even argue that their responses are psychologically realistic, or (I think closer to what the author intended) symbolically revealing.  The problem, to me at least, was that the early promise of their response quickly faded, leaving me frustrated, and to be honest bored.

Not to ruin the surprise, but approximately half-way through the book things begin to slowly fall into place.  When this happens, though, our ability to deduce what is happening is hampered by the ever-increasing fantasies of Michel, who becomes unable to judge fact from fiction.  Again, this is an interesting concept, but the fantasies themselves are unable to sustain the appeal, leaving the reader to trudge through several pages of obviously imaginary content, themed around Michel's deteriorating psyche.

On the whole, then, I have to confess that The Guard somewhat passed me by.  It is an interesting premise, but to my eyes this interest is quickly revealed to be the literary equivalent of the emperor's new clothes - the obvious literary aspirations of the work aren't quite able to mask the fact that it just isn't very entertaining.  I have the sense that this might be an interesting text to study, but for the casual reader I can't say it's worth the money.

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