Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A conversation with John Baker: the virtual tour of Winged with Death

Today I'm delighted to be hosting John Baker's latest stop on the virtual tour of his new novel 'Winged with Death.' This is a gripping novel, for me in more ways than one.

Here's the stunning prologue:
Montevideo was a dreamland.

We stood facing each other before I offered the embrace. She with her head high and her breasts thrust forward. When we came together and moved away in the tango walk I could feel his eyes tracking us around the room.

I was young and he was old and in taking her I might as well have cut his heart out. but I didn't know that. Or if I knew I didn't care. An old man's heart; it wasn't something to grieve over.

The novel then begins with Ramon Bolio, formerly Frederick Boyle, relating how in 1972, aged 18, he jumped ship in Montevideo to start life anew and indeed take on a new identity, landing unsuspecting in a country on the brink of dictatorship. Very soon, though, this narrative is interrupted: Ramon tells us that here in present-day York he has had to stop writing it because as he was doing so his brother Stephen came to tell him that Stephen's daughter, Ramon's niece, has gone missing. From this point on two stories run parallel. On the one hand there is the story of how, while people began to be 'disappeared' all around, in Uruguay young Ramon became a Milonguero, a master of the dance, immersing himself in the tango, which, if I understand the novel rightly, is both a denial of and a rebellion against repression - finally waking up to the political situation and joining the resistance movement and ending up in knuckle-biting danger. On the other, there is the present-day story of his niece's disappearance and the police hunt for her abductor or, as time goes on, her possible murderer. And all the time we are made aware of Ramon writing down both stories, and of the way that present-day events hold the process up.

While both stories in themselves are gripping, I found this structure and its implications, gripping: the idea that stories vie with each other for significance and as the repositories of reality or truth.

I was therefore eager to talk to John about his aims in this novel, and the conversation we had follows below. But first, a biography:

John Baker was born and brought up in Hull. He has worked as a social worker, shipbroker, truck driver, milkman, and most recently in the computer industry. He has twice received a Yorkshire Arts Association Writers’ Bursary. Married with five children, he lives in York now but has also lived in Oslo and a barn in France on the way there – long way for a short cut. In addition to Winged with Death he has published eight why-dunnits based in Hull and York - the Sam Turner series and the Stone Lewis series.

Here is our discussion:

EB: You've already talked on the tour about your themes of time, tango and denial and identity, but I'm really interested in how these are negotiated via the structure of the book. You've said that the two narratives operate like a tango, and I must say that I was excited the first time that the present-day narrative intruded, interrupting the writing of the older story (and this happens later again of course) - the way that, as you say in the book, tango partners move in relation to each other, invading each other's spaces. You say in the book too though I think that the tango is above all a communication - implying unity. Could you elaborate on the way the stories do this too?

JB: This is an interesting question. Winged with Death is the single story of a man's life. And it is a paradox, of course, that a life, any life is at one and the same time a single event while being made up of a host of different events and stories. Likewise with the dance, although the leader may indeed invade the other's space from time to time and the two dancers involved may dance conflict or disdain, loneliness or antagonism, these aspects of the dance can only really occur because of an inner unity or an understanding on each of the dancers' parts that they are dancing together. If that understanding, that unity is lost, even for a moment, there is a real danger that the dance will end up in a heap on the floor.
When I was writing Winged with Death I was aware of several stories going on at the same time (this is often the case in a novel); divided, in time, by two main narratives.
The earlier narrative, in Montevideo, concerns the experiences of a young man. The later experiences, in York, concern an older man. They dance together over time. They can never meet in actuality, only in memory. They are a unity, together they form a life. The young Ramon and the older Ramon are separated by time; but at the same time they are absolutely inseparable.
The two stories are dependent on each other. One cannot exist without the other. And in the dance there is no existence, no presence, without both partners.
That stability, that maintenance of form, represented best perhaps by the atom, is only possible because of the constant movement of its constituent parts. We can never step again into the same river.
Winged with Death aims to achieve its own unity by the interplay of its parts, the dislocations in time, the geographical, cultural and political differences between Montevideo in the seventies and York in the first years of the 21st century, and by the myths, musings, preoccupations and personal conduct of its main characters.

EB: This is fascinating, John, and very exciting. And yes, while your novel operates via those 'nudges' and interruptions, it does have a feeling of real synthesis: it's difficult, I find, (and reductive), to talk about one aspect of it without talking about all the others! Another moment which really struck a chord for me was the one near the beginning where Ramon talks about the possibility (or impossibility) of his present and past selves meeting up and comparing notes. While this obviously conveys your themes of dance and time, it’s also central to the notion of identity, isn’t it?

JB: Identity is another one of those endless quests. Like grasping or trying to grasp a fairy or a spirit. At last you get there and know you have it in your hand, but when you unclasp your fingers it has already flown. We always need to classify and measure and assess, to define and say this is it, now I have it, this is my identity. It's a kind of illness we have, a flaw in our makeup.
Because it doesn't take much reflection to see that we are in constant flux as long as we are alive. Our identity is whatever we are engaged in. Our characters are formed by the elements with which we are raised. We are the cumulative product of our past and the past of the fragments of culture we have absorbed and interpreted and the songs our mothers sang and the sounds in the night and a bright shiny day by the sea or in the back yard.
So identity is important, impossible but important. We would love to know the extent of our freedom and we can only begin to guess at that when we begin to discern if our knowledge is spontaneous or inherited.
This is complicated by questions of nature or nurture, by the old certainties disappearing, like nationality (the difference between the races); the death of god and our complete failure to find a replacement for Him. Our growing certainty over the last few hundred years that we are increasingly alone (or our capitulation into the fantasy of commercial religion).
Winged with Death begins with Ramon's reinvention of himself, his change of name and domicile, his willing absorption into a strange culture and tradition. He gives himself a new start.
In a way this happens quite frequently. People tell me, you get what you see with me. Or: I'm a simple man, or: I tell it like it is. They cannot accept the complexity of life, they want to lose themselves in the old religion or in over-simplifications like self-sufficiency. They dream of the countryside, seeing romanticized pictures of Hardyesque proportions.
All this is, of course, a kind of denial. It is stating that the overwhelming complexity of our lives is not necessary, that we don't need or shouldn't need to deal with it, that we can decide to say no to everything and achieve freedom through escapism.
But I feel more and more that the truth is complicated. That it is not possible to pinpoint who we are. That I am only the me that I am in this moment, and that in the next moment I may well be someone completely other.
I also believe that all of these questions of identity are touched on in one way or another in Winged with Death.
Like in any novel, some readers will pick up on this aspect of the novel, while others will not. A novel is a layered thing and a reader should be able to discover the layers they need at one particular reading. I suppose that is what is meant when people talk about a book having as many interpretations as it has readers.

EB: Well, for me they were a big thing in the novel. This idea that the truth and 'reality' are too complicated, paradoxical to pin down is a very important one to me (and I'm blown away by your moving explanation of it ), and it's one of the best things for me about Winged with Death. I'm wondering if this is something to do with your abandonment (for the moment) of the crime novel? I don't read crime novels as a rule, so in fact I'm pretty naive about them, but I have the idea that they are reliant on concepts of a single identifiable reality (solutions to mysteries and puzzles) and of course the search for identities in the most concrete sense of the word. Am I wrong here?

JB: I can't tell you if I have abandoned the crime novel. I don't want to write another one at the moment, and my current project, apart from promoting Winged with Death, is more of an historical novel than a crime novel, though I don't think of it in genre terms.
This time next year I may have changed my mind. I have still to conquer the future.
I think your idea of the crime novel and its limitations might be slightly skewed.
It is quite a broad genre. At one end these novels are exactly as you describe, and here I'm thinking of writers like Agatha Christie; the village mystery or the 'cozy', where something violent and completely unexpected happens within a small geographical and social area and the revelation of the perpetrator is (to me, at least) usually unconvincing and quite surprising. I don't regard this type of book as a novel at all. It is something else, more related to the crossword puzzle than to mainstream literature.
At the other end of the spectrum are novels by writers like Dashiel Hammett, Chandler, KC Constantine and George V. Higgins. These people write character based novels and are invariably interested in relationships and language and the interrelationship between individuals and society. They use the crime genre self-consciously, using perhaps a murder or other crime as a skeleton on which to hang a thinly disguised novel of manners or an excuse to introduce other concepts of a wider concern.
Between these two extremes there are, within the genre of crime or mystery novels, a seemingly endless array of side streets and alleyways which include sub-genres like historical crime or fantasy-crime, etc. etc.
Like any other genre, there is a lot of dross. But if you choose critically there are some real gems out there.

EB: Yes, I guess I was overstating my position a bit, as I do like Chandler for the very reasons you outline. And of course, Winged with Death plays with the genre because there's the hunt for the missing girl and a potential murderer in the present day. And now that I think about it, it's almost as if you're saying (in the novel) that the crime novel is one kind of truth out of many... ! (?)

JB: I didn't think I was saying anything about the crime novel in Winged with Death. However, as you well know, the writer is often the last person to know what is really going on.

EB: You've touched on the theme of denial in the novel, something I'm particularly interested in. Could you to talk a bit more about it?

JB: My neighbours’ daughter went down to four and a half stone (30kg) before they took her into hospital. Even then she had to be force-fed, insisting that she only needed to lose another few pounds and she would begin eating normally again.
I often recall Solzhenitsyn's remarks about his neighbours in Stalin's Russia. They would leave for work in the morning, he said, and there would be a car at the end of the street with two men sitting in the front seats. When they returned in the evening the same car would be in the same place, but with other men in the front seats. They would be told by neighbours and friends that these men from the car had been making inquiries about them. This might go on for several days, until one day the two men would arrive at the house with a uniformed officer and the subjects would be arrested and taken away, often never to be seen again.
Everyone knew the routine, Solzhenitsyn said. When the process first began it was a warning. The subjects could have got on a train and disappeared, sought help from relatives in another town; they could have done something to save their lives. But hardly anyone ever did. They preferred to believe it wasn't happening. Even though it would soon claim their lives, they preferred to ignore all the evidence.
According to Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, she refused to accept she was dying of cancer until a few days before the end. A woman who revered reason, science and logic, and in the face of overwhelming evidence from the medics willingly entered a state of deep denial.
Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms and one that we all use from time to time. We often refuse to acknowledge the existence or severity of unpleasant external realities or internal thoughts and feelings. Men who live in cultures with extreme notions of masculinity are known to view fear as a sign of weakness and deny their own feelings of fear.
Denial can also take on a mass form. There was a kind of national denial taking place during the 1950s when school children were taught to hide under desks in preparation for atomic attacks.
Today we all know about Holocaust denial, and even the denial of global warming.
But people generally accept that denial only takes place among others. They never do it themselves, they may understand the mechanism and understand why it happens, but it is invariably something that happens to others, never to me.
As a writer I find myself fascinated both by the personal and the social manifestations of denial. I see us going to the polls and electing chauvinistic politicians who are prepared to tell us anything but the truth. It is as though we have an internal picture of our world and we are prepared to spend an enormous amount of energy and time on maintaining that vision, almost at any cost.
This was one of the things I wanted to explore in Winged with Death, and why denial became one of the themes of the novel.


Thanks so much to John for such interesting insights into his artistic concerns.

You can buy the novel here.
John's blog is here.
Details of the rest of the virtual tour can be found here.
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