Paul Simon reviews The White City by Roma Tearne (Gallic Books, £12.99)
THERE are echoes, maybe unintended, of both Orhan Pamuk and Ilya Ehrenburg in Roma Tearne’s seventh novel.
They are evident not only in the confinements of the characters and the suppressions of the language used, reflecting the impact of an inclement meteorology upon the mobility and actions of her protagonists, and also in the metaphorical implications of the deadening nature of societies in microcosm, hunkering down and in retreat.
As with her previous fictions, the author once again shows her total attunedness with a community’s fissures and weaknesses as she takes us on a journey across different decades in which events in Britain, only a few years or maybe some dozen months into the future, are juxtaposed with a militarist South American state and a once idyllic Middle East.
The world of protagonist Hera is tumbling out of control, coinciding with the start of a prolonged cold snap, as her brother Aslam is taken into custody by a clinically vicious domestic state just as her older, enigmatic lover Raphael also disappears.
The first-person voice in the novel, the usual signifiers of national identity, here assume a startling duality.
Hera, Hektor and Calypso, in spite of their Western classical names are, through memories and religious references, Muslim marsh Arabs. They are Every People — ordinary souls facing the collapse of their known worlds, quite possibly for the second time in many of their lives.
Raphael’s recollections of his life before and during a vicious Pinochet-style military dictatorship are so poignantly recalled that they fully explain the span of his constant coldness and emotional sterility towards Hera.
Tearne, our generation’s pre-eminent literary recorder of cultural disintegration, also emphasises the particular focus that first-generation migrants have on the past as a compensation for the fragility of the present.
Hera, of the second acculturalised generation, poses the compelling question: “Why is it... migrants never, ever forget? It seemed to me they had memories that had enlarged to twice the size of any normal person’s.”
The individual and collective responses to Aslam’s detention, along with their treatment by the mainstream media and their immediate neighbours, reinforces their sense of the characters’ isolation as a hated and misunderstood minority.
But Tearne also presents us with a wider society whose compassion for the “other” has totally frozen into paranoid and polarised selfishness.
Yet through the decades of pain of Hera’s tragedies and losses, something is happening. The natural world — especially birds, employed here by Tearne as harbingers and signifiers of change — is sending signals.
The thaw has come. But rather than cleanliness, what remains is the muddle and detritus of memory.
The White City is ugly and damaged. How can Hera reconcile that and the dying society around her?