REVIEW EXTRA (November 2018)
When SARAH TANBURN visited Prague she took a copy of Sarah Perry’s new novel Melmoth (& a camera). Here’s her take on the novel & her trip
LOOKING SIDEWAYS AT HORROR:
MELMOTH & THE MOTHER OF CITIES
WHEN I was about twelve, writes SARAH TANBURN, not long after Bloody Sunday, a visitor questioned my choice of reading matter, a lurid redemption tale of New York street gangs. My father shrugged.
‘She can’t read anything more horrific than she sees on the news,’ he said.
Melmoth is not a ‘horror’ novel, despite its ghostly tropes. Sarah Perry does not hold you in delightful suspense for the next gory moment or supernatural revelation. Yet she has given us an important book, filled with foreboding and unreliable decisions, challenging us to think again about those shivers down our spine.
I walked the streets of Prague, where much of Melmoth is set, reading the novel and pondering its expectations. In the ‘mother of cities’, where every corner has suffered bloodstains during the long second millennium, I saw no jackdaws. Desk 209 of the National Library, where Helen Franklin meets her first friend in Czechia, does not exist. No black-robed figures danced in the corner of my eye, waiting for my wits to grow sharper.
Yet the interwoven stories walked with me; Hoffman, who cannot forgive his own youthful, wilful ignorance, Karel and his failure to keep love alive, Helen remembering a woman dying in a Philippine hospital and her lover rotting in jail.
Melmoth herself is the woman who, going with Mary to the tomb, said that she had not met Jesus walking in the garden. She is condemned to roam the earth forever, supremely lonely, watching the horrors that humans inflict on one another. (Peter, of course, got the keys of Heaven. He lied to save his skin, while Melmoth only reported what she had seen. Witnessing is the unforgiveable complicity, not the repented denial.)
In places across Europe, a chair is left out for Melmoth, that she may find rest and pass on by, for her attention will drive you mad. She seeks out people facing hard, intimate decisions, and offers them the choice to accompany her, to alleviate her loneliness. Robed in fluid black, she is a shape-changer who may tower over her prey or be a small, seductive temptress.
Courage is required to say her nay, to resist the temptation only to watch rather than take action. It takes both stubbornness and bravery to intervene, whether for good or ill.
Perry adopts many of the tropes of Gothic fiction: nested stories told to intermediaries, avian heralds of evil, snow. She takes us to the Holocaust and its aftermath, to the last, violent gasps of the Ottoman Empire, to sun-drenched Manila. Throughout she uses setting and place like a painter, allowing us to glimpse infernal landscapes through a window in the background.
We can feel the crackling pages of Hoffman’s bundle of ‘primary sources’, Rosa’s fragile, scoured skin and the knob of the radio turning under Franz Bayer’s fingers. These details are almost unbearable in the face of what people endure yet we must read on, sucked in by the gravity of curiosity and despair.
Melmoth asks if bearing witness to truth is enough, if compassion alone fulfils the human imperative. If mere witnessing is more morally acceptable than active wrong, how much better would it be to intervene to do what you conceive to be right? Action may make matters even worse yet doing nothing may be worse than complicity, be simply cowardice. Every time she appears, Melmoth forces her chosen one to decide.
In Prague, empty chairs wait in archways and quiet roofs lie ready for a mysterious woman to reach out her hand as you pass by. Walking Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, it is impossible to forget that the Theresienstadt concentration camp was less than forty miles away. I am reminded of Morris’s Hav, that European ur-town encapsulating one story of the twentieth century and mourning the inter-war glory years. Perry refuses to lionise that past, while demonstrating that these days are not an improvement.
I should confess that I am a wimp, bruising my friends’ arms at cinematic zombies and neck-bolted butlers. But Melmoth does not frighten me, this lost soul wandering the earth having denied the risen Christ. Rather, I am haunted by the echoes of laughter from the absurdist artists of the first Czechoslovakian republic, raging against the rise of fascism, the censored portrayals of the monsters of their age. They did not only witness, but acted. We must ask where are those artists now; in this book Perry is herself one answer.
She reminds us that much which is horrific is not on the news, fake or otherwise. Acid attacks on women, a minor bureaucrat enabling genocide, one more refugee forced onto a plane to certain punishment do not make anyone’s headlines. Brutality may be captured in the record, like Kazda’s grainy films looping in Prague Castle’s Golden Lane, yet its heart is beating here and now in the mundane world. Acts of betrayal and violence haunt our ports and the lintels of our homes, linger on paving stones and mosque gates; they fade but slowly, as Melmoth’s bloody heelprint in the hospital door. Silence or speech are demanded every day.
It is incumbent on us at least to acknowledge that such things happen, Perry asserts. Read the book, shiver at its heroine and let the echoes settle in your mind while you watch this evening’s headlines.
Photography: Sarah Tanburn
Melmoth by Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent, is published by Serpent’s Tail (£16.99 hardback, £10.99 eBook).