New Review for Winged with Death
Winged With Death by John Baker,
Flambard Press (2009)
ISBN 978-1906601027, 291pp £8.98
‘It was 1972 and I was eighteen years old. I had jumped ship and watched while she sailed away.’
The narrator’s account of his decade in Uruguay gets off to a running start. A young man in a remote country is a recipe for picaresque adventures, and Montevideo is seething with political violence and sweating with the tango. On his very first day young Frederick runs into Tupamaros member Julio, gets a job washing dishes, and accepts the name Ramon Bolio. ‘That day in 1972 I was up for change,’ he tells us.
Ramon is in the privileged position of being able to mingle at all levels of society. He teaches English to a Capitan of the military regime, yet frequents the bars where revolutionary politics is discussed. Those around him are more or less born into their situation, but he has the choice of whether or not to engage with this world. He walks up to the most beautiful girl among the tango dancers and tells her if she doesn’t come home with him he’ll spend the night howling at the moon. You wouldn’t have done that back home in York, the reader can’t help thinking.
There is something unsettling about this young Ramon – a man with no fixed beliefs who is so easily able to cast aside his English habits. He tells us he has wrestled to reconcile the need for a credo with the conviction that life is just a flash in the pan. Events proceed with an hallucinatory clarity. The reader can picture the action of each scene perfectly, but the emotive layer is often elusive. ‘I had embraced a new life and new friends and commitments and my emotions and feelings were not repressed in any obvious way. I was a dancer. I was not a camera,’ he assures us, though the reader is right not to take the narrator at face value.
This tale of an adventurous youth is being typed up by the Ramon of three decades later. He is back living in York, in the house where he grew up. But the events in Uruguay have defined who he now is: his name is still Ramon Bolio, and he teaches the tango with a passion. His sixteen-year-old niece has gone missing. A dual plot drives the novel forward. Questions are thrown up about how the past has made him what he is today.
Ramon’s brother Stephen is intellectually a little slow. It is up to Ramon to take the lead in dealings with the police as they investigate the young woman’s disappearance. He confronts them as they commence digging up Stephen’s lawn. ‘Stephen, Debbie, they don’t have the nous for this kind of thing. If they’d killed her they’d sit down and cry. They wouldn’t hide the body.’ It’s a rather odd thing to say of his brother, and betrays a familiarity with violence. This attention to detail runs through the story and only slowly becomes apparent.
The characters, and in particular the narrator, are created with perfect psychological coherence. For example Ramon mentions on the first page that a slim volume of Gurdjieff was in his backpack. Sure enough, a hundred pages later he borrows a technique from the wily thinker. And after his first encounter with violence, Ramon’s narrative proceeds with the same manifest confidence as before, yet the new relationships he forms come across as increasingly erratic and unsound.
Montevideo and its dance bars, checkpoints, and growing atmosphere of fear is conjured up with great immediacy. All the while tango features as a recurring metaphor. ‘Tango is about memory, abandonment, love, defeat, death, sorrow and it is about standing before a beloved object and remembering that object as a living presence.’
John Baker’s novel is suffused with existentialist concepts: attachment, nothingness, the instability of the human being. His style owes more perhaps to Camus’ essays on Algeria than it does to the classic English novel. His prose achieves the almost impossible task of being as plot-driven as a thriller yet steeped in philosophy; an adventure story yet a sustained reflection on how to live life more fully. It is beautifully written, a tango of thought and action, its true power not apparent at first sight. It is imbued with a deep sense of mystery: not just the mystery of where the disappeared have gone, but the mystery of what connects an individual to be one person through time.
When I read this novel I was in the enjoyable position of knowing nothing about the author or his previous work, and resolved to keep things that way until I finished. ‘One of Britain’s most talented crime writers,’ declares a blurb on the back. Delete the word ‘crime’ and it hits the mark. This novel deserves a place in every backpacker’s pocket and on every thinking man’s bookshelf.