Irish Times: Eileen Battersby reviews 'My Father's Dreams'
Eileen Battersby reviews
How Philip Larkin would have endorsed this novel. In This Be the Verse (1971), one of his most famous poems, Larkin chastised parents for the damage they do, having previously suffered it in turn when young and seeing the cycle of retribution continue.
Evald Flisar, Slovene man of letters extraordinaire, undertakes fearless forays into the bizarre ways in which the mind works. My Father’s Dreams, a deadpan, slow-burning cautionary tale, requires patience yet ultimately delivers. His narrator is the bewildered only surviving son of a village doctor. It is a book about how a child is influenced and undermined and betrayed.
From the first paragraph, Flisar stamps his singular brand of anarchic irony on what is to follow:
“It is true that the doctor in the neighbouring district was of a friendlier disposition, but my father could boast a much higher rate of cure. That’s why he felt that a guarded measure of disdain for one’s patients was hardy a crime. Surprisingly, he was exceptionally pleasant to hypochondriacs, for whom he harboured a special feeling of closeness.”
It is clear that Adam, the 34-year-old narrator, is looking back, not so much attempting to make sense of what happened – it’s just too weird – but to explain the way in which it all unfolded. Or, rather, unravelled.
“Whenever I summon my father to memory, I see a tall, slightly stooping gentleman of middle age . . . always wearing a slightly anxious expression, which could, however, together with the softness of his eyes, unexpectedly leap into a warm, puzzling smile, sufficiently charming for him to be known, especially among the female patients as the ‘handsome doctor’.”
All of this added to the ongoing misery of Adam’s mother. Prior to their marriage, she had worked as a receptionist at the health centre, but this didn’t suit the good doctor. Wary of family closeness in the workplace, he decided she should become an accounts clerk at the local factory.
“Ambivalence” could have been this novel’s alternative title. Having signalled the fact that the good doctor is unpleasant, Adam nevertheless declares: “I loved Father very much. Without him, my growing years would have been lonely and without any mystery.” But Adam is lonely, to the point of madness: he converses with Abortus, his dead brother, a foetus in a jar.
Never mind. Flisar, long-listed for the 2015 International Impac Dublin Literary Award for a brilliant picaresque, On the Gold Coast (2010), has an individual approach to narrative. Logic does not interest him; human behaviour at the mercy of a damaged psyche is his chosen theme.
So 14-year-old Adam adores his domineering father, despite his rudeness to his mother. But then, Adam never did have much sympathy for the long-suffering woman. “Mother tried her best not to show how lonely she felt,” he concedes. “Any objections she found the courage to raise were promptly brushed aside by Father’s acid wit, in the face of which she felt transfixed like a small rodent confronted by a deadly snake.”
Still, she endures and she speaks up. She even tries to help her son. It is she, not her doctor-husband, who first detects “that something wasn’t quite right with me”.
Note the narrator’s deliberate use of “wasn’t quite right”. Flisar enjoys understatement, and the more outrageous the better. This restraint is interesting, considering the queasily explicit sex scenes. Be warned this novel begins well and does venture into uncertainty and crassly sexual interludes, but by the end it is obvious exactly how very good it is. If Flisar is a maverick, he is also an original.
Aside from the sex scenes, the real story is Adam’s dreams. And these dream sequences are the direct cause of much of what happens after Adam writes a school essay on “What I dreamt last night”.
His teacher is disturbed after reading Adam’s account of how he dreamed of he and his father derailing a train on which the boy’s mother is travelling in order to test their theory of fate versus chance. “Our reasoning went like this: if the train bringing Mother home gets derailed, she will survive, but only if fate had decreed that she should not die in a train accident; otherwise she will die.”
The pair derail the train; an accident occurs leaving 123 people, including Mother, dead. It was quite a dream and it inspired Adam. “I was very proud of my essay. But the teacher, who read it silently . . . grew increasingly red in the face, until . . . he turned deathly pale.” Mother is horrified by the essay; Father is impressed.
Mother attempts to salvage family life, and even insists on a holiday. Meanwhile, Adam’s dreams reach operatic pitch. He is unsure of where waking life yields to his dreaming self.
Adam is a cross between Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath and the even more coolly crazed narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It is the quality of the writing that most convinces. Adam has moments of wondrous clarity, such as when he studies his deceptively heroic mother as they sit on an island, not yet aware that Adam’s father has abandoned them:
“Something made me realise with a shock that Mother existed. That she had a life of her own. That she was more than a mere shape in my thoughts. That she was not my invention, or the annoying shadow she so often seemed . . . Whichever way I had perceived her, she had never been as real as Father.”
Later, after various disasters, Adam thinks he is about to go on another holiday. Unhinged by longing for a dangerous girl who has also been involved in his father’s misdemeanours, Adam is unhappy yet can’t stop smiling. The train is due to arrive, so he staggers to the lavatory.
“Then I noticed a small mirror above the sink. I was shocked to discover that my face had gained an unhealthy red, almost crimson colour, and was developing gaps, not only in the skin . . . The smile was no longer the problem . . . I began to feel very hot . . . as if blood had started to boil in my veins, and I was assailed by the fear of losing my face . . . my lower jaw began to wobble . . . In the end only eyes remained on top of the brain stem jutting out from my truck, large, wide-open, tear-swollen eyes.” But Adam’s adventures don’t end even there.
Wise but never knowing
Shocking and offbeat, funny and sad, My Father’s Dreams is wise but never knowing. Adam is both victim and perpetrator. Or is he? He may even be a tragic anti-hero. Somehow he remains sympathetic. This is a novel about vulnerability and corruption as well as madness and despair.
In his JG Ballard-like On the Gold Coast, Flisar despatched six Europeans on a quest through Africa in pursuit of an enigmatic writer and the respective answers they each seek. One of the six, another abandoned son, is also searching for an elusive parent. My Father’s Dreams is as psychologically sophisticated and even more daring. It asks profound questions about exactly how much damage a psyche can absorb, never mind make sense of. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent
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