Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Transition, Fifth Business

I was going to write a review of Iain Bank's novel Transition. This is meant to be a crossover book, mainstream fiction (no 'M.') but using the SF apparatus of multiple worlds. A secret organisation 'The Concern' runs a policing operation across the infinite universes, intervening by any means up to and including assassination and torture.

The hero is an accomplished assassin who begins to have doubts about the motives of The Concern. He is wooed both by the leader of The Concern's council and by her rebellious antagonist. There is much sex.

Who has right on their side? Which way will the hero jump? How will it all end up? The novel starts in typical Banks fashion: bottom-up with numerous story lines which make no sense. There's plenty of back-story for the main characters, much of it told achronologically. Yes, it's an intellectual puzzle to read this book and it only really gets exciting towards the end.

Many reviewers disliked the book, feeling it was shapeless, self-indulgent, arbitrary and perhaps pointless: I disagree. Transition certainly demands quite a lot of the reader to internalise events and bios whose significance won't become apparent until much later, but it rewards the effort. As you reach the last page, turn immediately to the first chapter which you will now understand.

I particularly agreed with Bank's views on torture. He's too intelligent not to know that torture sometimes works. But he also sees how corrosive judicial torture is on any civilized society. So his minor character who 'successfully' tortured a terrorist (and was lauded for it although the details were hushed up) has a conscience-induced breakdown and demands to be prosecuted for his crime, stating that if torture is ever used, even to prevent a great crime, its use is nevertheless also a crime and it must always be punished. I think that's probably the SIS view too.

As I said, I was going to write a review but I found it just too difficult.


No such intellectual contortions with "Fifth Business" by Robertson Davies. I had never heard of either title or author but Adrian got it out of the library and recommended it. I asked him how he manages to find intelligent, well-written stuff to read and he admitted he cheats: Penguin Modern Classics is the hint.

Dunstan Ramsey has spent 45 years as a school-master at a famous Canadian school and has taken umbrage at the flippant tone of the piece in the school magazine writing up his retirement do. He takes it upon himself to write to the Headmaster giving a truer account of his apparently dry-as-dust life and that account is the 'autobiographical' novel.

It's impossible to summarise the complexities of character, relationships and events which this book encapsulates. Dunstan grows up in the rural village of Deptford, an intelligent and imaginative boy surrounded by pioneering folk with the sensitivities of oxen. He runs away to the first world war and is terribly injured, acquiring a compensatory VC. He returns and takes up school-mastering, developing a life-long interest in saints (hagiography). His closest relationship is with a fellow villager (the local rich boy) who grows up to become an incredibly successful man of the (Canadian) world. Somehow the youthful crime which starts the book comes to haunt and shape the destinies of all concerned, coming together in a shocking finale.

This is beautiful writing. Deceptively simple, homespun-even yet every page carries psychological depth and moral consequence. Both Adrian and myself devoured it. I have now ordered the second and third books of The Deptford Trilogy, "The Manticore" and "World of Wonders".