The Boston Globe, October 29, 2000
The millennia-long reach of evil
THE SHAPE OF A BOAR
322 pp. $25
poor Barbara Walters if she should ever ask the British novelist Lawrence
Norfolk what sort of tree he would like to be. The Eden of possibilities available
to the amateur botanist would stagger his interviewer with regret that she
ever asked, and if she's so unprepared as to let him expand his options to
include flora and fauna, she'd be advised to run for her life. Just as my
mother can't look at a bare window without wishing to see it covered in curtains,
Norfolk can't give us a landscape without covering it in "powdery yellow
soil tufted with scrubby grasses," or "swathes of yellow stonecrop
that rustle[s] and crunch[es]," or "box, lentise, myrtle and broom."
Nor is botany Norfolk's only interest. Cartography, cinematography, history
from Zeus to the Holocaust - nothing seems inaccessible to his intellect and
curiosity. He stares and stares at whatever the object of his interest happens
to be - the mountains of mythological Greece, a trolley car as it chugs its
way through the center of a Romanian village circa 1938, a train drawing soldiers
across Italy at the end of the war - and doesn't look away until his subject
surrenders its last wisp of mystery. His novels are the transcripts of these
surrenders, and their power rises or falls with the effectiveness of any given
In structure, Norfolk's third novel, "In the Shape of a Boar," is
similar to his first, the exuberant "Lempriere's Dictionary" (1991),
which brought to life a series of tableaux from classical mythology to tell
the story of a near-sighted lexicographer in 18th-century England. In "Boar,"
Norfolk limits himself to a single story, the pre-Homeric myth of the hunt
for the boar of Kalydon, but offers it in two versions: the original myth,
then a modern update set at the end of World War II.
The recovery of lost worlds gives Norfolk's novels their excitement. At these
times he seems a magician pulling wonders from his hat and setting them before
our astonished eyes. Though nothing here matches the wonderful moment when
country bumpkin Lempriere arrives in chaotic London at the start of his adventures,
Norfolk's handling of the Kalydon hunt comes close. The goddess Artemis, angered
by inadequate sacrifices from the king of Kalydon, has sent a wild boar to
ravage his land. The king's son, Meleager, hunts the boar in the company of
rogues and heroes, among them Atalanta, the virgin warrior, and her cousin
Meilanion, the "night hunter." Norfolk's narrative crawls along
with the hunters, then erupts with sudden bursts of action - a flood, a sacrificial
fire, a sneak attack from an invisible enemy. Throughout, Norfolk's lyrical
gift holds us in its power.
"Then the fire appears to suck each body through the air, breathing its
own fierce light into the placid flesh and bone. The animals seem to dance."
Eventually three heroes are left - the chaste menage of Atalanta, Meilanion,
and Meleager - and they have cornered the boar in his cave.
Here the narrative breaks up into footnotes that argue the authenticity of
the conflicting sources on which the myth is based. We leave the unresolved
past and arrive in a Paris television studio. Norfolk one-ups John Updike
by adding the skills of cinematographer and lighting director to his already
crowded resume, while maintaining his classical credentials by describing
the TV camera as "a Cyclops' watery eye." Having ventured no further
in his previous novels than the 19th century, Norfolk has generated a certain
curiosity as to how his narrative voice will translate into a contemporary
idiom. "I appear to have died," says Solomon Memel, the novel's
central figure, as he regards himself in full TV makeup. Norfolk's wit is
dry as a Bond martini, letting us know that the past is eternal, the present
merely a sort of afterlife.
Memel is about to emerge from a 20-year silence to discuss his celebrated
poem, "Die Keilerjagd," translated into 18 languages and required
reading in all of them. Based on the Kalydon myth, the poem is an autobiographical
account of Memel's experiences in Greece at the end of World War II, when
he and a band of Greek partisans hunted a Nazi officer to his death in the
mountains of Greece - but what exactly happened isn't made clear in the poem,
and this ambiguity becomes the novel's subject.
But Norfolk overreaches. From the television studio we step back in time to
Romania in 1938, when Memel is 19 and the Russian Army is abandoning the country
to the horrors of the Nazi occupation. Norfolk spares no effort in his re-creation
of prewar life for Memel and his two childhood friends, Ruth and Jacob, but
by this point the reader is merely looking for a comfortable bench to rest
on for a while. Back and forth we careen between Paris, where Ruth is making
a film version of Memel's poem, and Romania/
Greece, as Memel loses his family and friends to the Holocaust and escapes
on foot to Greece and a new hunt for the boar of Kalydon.
Despite a fearless eye that watches animals being sucked into a sacrificial
fire, a misplaced discretion causes Norfolk to look away from the human feelings
that would give his novel some emotional life. The menage a trois between
Memel, Ruth, and Jacob plays out in a gooey romanticism of chaste desire and
jarring bursts of crude sexual violence, like a Michael Jackson video. Presumably
Norfolk wants to say something about the nature of evil. But his parallel
stories take us in separate directions. If the Kalydon boar is a revenge sent
by an angry god, what is Norfolk saying about the Holocaust? What is similar
in the two stories is merely the image of inert characters struggling across
a malevolent landscape. Memel, Ruth, and Jacob have already staked out their
positions when we meet them at age 19. The Holocaust doesn't change them -
it just proves their points.
Curiously, the liveliest character is the boar. We enter his mind late in
the story, as he is reviewing his rampage, with his death presumably close.
His violence comes from the same inchoate urge that causes him to rub his
belly sensuously against the rough bark of a tree. He's the only character
with any sexual desire and, more important, self-doubt. It's the doubt that
makes him the most human figure in the book. The others are time-released
givens, dissolving toward their destinies.
"Now is the time for the Tellable," says the 19-year-old Memel,
and this recurs as an imperative throughout the book. Yet the extraordinary
events of our own Sept. 11 have made the present a time for the Tellable as
well, as a new war arrives on the doorstep of an unprepared nation, as a fresh
band of heroes hunts evil in an unforgiving mountain landscape. Coincidence
has catapulted Norfolk into the center of our day's debate, but his interests
lie elsewhere. Landscape is his protagonist, and his hero the exquisite prose
that describes it.