If there is a detective setting out to solve the mystery of the sardine, s/he sits in a chair (perhaps an armchair) reading Stefan Themerson’s novel The Mystery of the Sardine. The detection is in the reading, and the mystery is in the text, in the asking: What is this book about? How are all these characters related? What is the unifying concept?
I haven’t solved the mystery, but I’m not concerned by that. A lack of solution hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the process. Themerson is a singularly intelligent and insightful writer whose novels are enjoyable rides into the everyday philosophies of disparate groups of characters. He weaves together this novel, which was originally published in 1986 and has been reissued by the Dalkey Archive Press, from a number of threads that seem at first random but end up in a pattern that replicates not a conventionally structured drama but the world itself.
The novel’s exceedingly complex first half begins with an English writer who carefully divides his life: city and country, anger and peace, the prose for which he is well-regarded and the poetry that he keeps to himself. At his passing, the story follows his wife and his secretary as they start a relationship and move to Majorca. There in Majorca, they receive a visit from a young scholar who is writing a dissertation on the writer and wants to know the color of his eyes, which neither woman recalls, so we (and the story) move back to England where a philosophy professor, his wife, and his daughter all live. One day the scholar visits the philosophy professor, who knew the writer, and both are caught in some kind of terrorist attack when a black poodle strapped with explosives runs up to the house. From here the story goes back to Majorca where the philosophy professor (now in a wheelchair) and his family are vacationing. We meet a young boy; he falls in love with the professor’s daughter (writing the most romantic math thesis you will ever read), and then we return with the boy’s mother, a former palm reader, to the writer’s wife and secretary (though only briefly).
At this point, one begins to realize that Themerson is not writing a conventional novel. Halfway through there is no protagonist (or there are a dozen), no clear plot or movement to the events, just a collection of interrelated characters and their ideas—for each character at some point expresses his or her philosophy about some aspect of the world. This includes both the major characters (those with at least a single chapter from their point of view (of which there are many)) and the briefly appearing supporting characters:
Veronica, the wife of the philosopher and a “poet”—who believes that: “Poetry is not for reading. Poetry is for writing,”—on fakes: “Fakes are always real. They have to be. They are the proof that the true thing exists. When you see a faked Picasso you know there must be a true Picasso somewhere. You can’t have a false Picasso without having a true Picasso first, can you?” Baudrillard may disagree with that.
Or the Judge on logic as he walks along a dusty road in Majorca:
Actually he distinguished two kinds of logic. He called one Perfect Logic, and the other Good Logic. They were not always in agreement with each other. Sometimes they were like cog wheels, Plato’s Heaven or Dante’s Earth, rotating each other in opposite directions. His Perfect Logic would start from some firm convictions and march remorselessly forward, goose step by goose step, coûte que coûte, to some final solution. His Good Logic was different. It had safeguards built into it in case the axioms were wrong. His axioms were spelt out in the Statute book. They could be changed only by an Act of Parliament. Thus, when he saw that the perfect logical conclusion was going to be unjust to the man, the woman, or the child, he, the judge, unable to change the Act of Parliament, would cheat by mincing the steps of his logic, and that’s why he called it “good.” Because (and here he would quote Queen Victoria?) “Goodness is the only thing that never loses it value.”
Or even a Polish chauffeur offering a bit of criticism on the verse engraved on the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
‘Scuse pronunciation. ‘V’been in America for not very long. They chucked me out. And haven’t heard much English since. Am not sure what the word “storied” means. Your storied pomp. Does it mean many storeys like in their skyscrapers, or like social classes, upper classes, lower classes, or it it like a story meaning history?
Themerson makes these expressions seem natural within the novel. Recently, in reading The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide I was continually bothered by the way the characters speechify so as to express their ideas. Gide makes it clear which philosophies he wants to reader to agree with and which the reader should disagree with, while Themerson seems to take joy in the proliferation of ideas and viewpoints. His is an expansive and investigative method (perhaps the real investigation in this mystery is a philosophic one). The mathematical thesis, entitled “Euclid was an Ass,” written by the young genius is alone almost worth the price of the book. Yes, romantic math.
The second half of the novel continues in this spirit, but also takes on a more traditional narrative role. The majority of part two is focused through the elderly Lady Cooper, a Polish émigré who married a British lord. Part one of the novel ends with a death and a body, and in part two Lady Cooper’s story is indirectly motivated by this death. At a basic level, this mirrors the structure of a detective novel: a death and a body which leads the detective through the rest of the story. Though, in this case, there is no murder to solve, just the ongoing mysteries of the inter-relation of people and events. It is not a mystery of cold logic, as is pointed out in the first chapter of part two by a woman speaking to the as yet unintroduced Lady Cooper:
You don’t want to see the mystery. And this place is full of mysteries, Madame. One would need a Simenon to unravel all the coincidences. . . . Pardon? Sherlock Holmes? Oh, no, Madame. Your Sherlock Holmes is a puppet made of papier mache, Madame. One could rewrite his stories to show that he always points out the wrong suspect and lets the real criminal go scot-free. No, no. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t understand a thing. Especially women. And if you don’t like Simenon, Madame, then perhaps Zola? Maupassant? Mauriac? Or, pourquoi pas? Racine? Corneille? Unless you prefer your Father Brown, Chesterton I mean, or do you find the comparison outrageous? Yet, wouldn’t he—Simenon, I mean—wouldn’t he be the best man to explain why she didn’t cry?
The coincidences from part one begin to unravel in part two. Lines are drawn between the characters. Themerson not only relates the characters in this novel but also those in his previous works. Like the threads of mystery being pulled together, Lady Cooper’s old acquaintance, the so-called Minister of Imponderabilia, finds the center of these disparate characters and events:
[Lady Cooper speaking] “. . . What is the purpose of piling up and up all those isolated irrelevancies, all those unconnected facts and people near or far if you can’t link them together, hiddenly or not.”
“But I can,” he [the Minister of Imponderabilia] said.
“No,” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
“You really mean that all those various things can be linked with something? Something definite?”
“Well, what is it? What is this mysterious something?”
“It isn’t a ‘something,’ it’s ‘somebody.’”
“Can you tell me who?”
“You,” he said.
In a detective story there are only three real connections between all the characters, places, and events. The first is not the victim (for we must assume the existence of red herrings or events that follow the murder), but the detective, whom we follow through the story. Then there are the world/novel, where all these things exist, and the reader (though in a way the reader and the detective are mirrors). The detective novel could be considered a system of interlocking parts that runs like a machine during the course of the reading. Similarly, The Mystery of the Sardine is a system that exists to expose to us these parts and their interaction. The world, too, is a similar system, and everyone has their own idea of how (or why) that systems works. The everyday philosophies expressed by Themerson’s characters point to the multiplicity of explanations.
“We are all trapped between the beautiful blueprints of the most perfect systems and the World that contradicts itself, the World that is ‘large and contains multitudes.’”
Naturally all these systems, of science, class, religion, mathematics, etc., are imperfect, yet people go on believing in them. And that is where we become detectives in life, piecing together the parts into a system which works for us.
Strange where a novel can lead.
“One tells stories when one must lie in order to tell the truth.”
Themerson’s novel, in its collision of the everyday and philosophic, in its strange characters and stranger coincidences, in its humor and intelligence, reminds me of the works of the great French author Raymond Queneau. Themerson is one of the few authors that can bear that comparison without harm. In the past couple of years, Dalkey Archive has republished three of his novels—this, Tom Harris, and Hobson’s Island—and all of them are worth seeking out and reading.
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