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Ludmila’s Broken English

By D.B.C. Pierre

Ah, the perennial curse of ‘difficult second novel’ syndrome. In the case of D.B.C. (hereinafter the acronym will be dispensed with, in favour of ‘Dumb-But-Clever’) Pierre, however, it is acutely exacerbated. For, while it doubtlessly represents a massive vote of confidence (to say nothing of providing a much-welcome cash injection), winning the most prestigious literary award in the world, the Man Booker Prize, with one’s debut effort, could just as easily become a never-to-be forgotten, and un-shake-off-able, albatross around the neck of the seemingly fortunate writer, in terms of thereinafter having to live up to the weight of unrealistic and so impossible expectations. Which is, apparently, what has happened to Dumb-But-Clever Pierre.
First, the plot: what we have here is a dual narrative, one of which concerns a pair of recently separated, 33-year-old Siamese twins named, rather obviously, Blair Albert and Gordon-Marie (also known as ‘Bunny’) Heath; the other deals with the unbelievably delectable nubile Ludmila Ivanova Derev, and her dirt-poor, shack-dwelling family of peasant grotesques, in the fictitious former Soviet republic of Ublilsk, which is currently at war with, and losing to, the neighbouring, equally fictitious, former Soviet republic of Gnezvarikstan.
Blair and Bunny have been suddenly sundered and released from the confines of the Albion House Institution in a remote part of northern England, where they have spent all of their lives until now, into a Care in the Community programme in the big smoke of London, because of the cost cutting policies of a newly privatised NHS. Blair falls hook, line and sinker for the ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ offered by rampant late capitalism and the free market economy, although this manifests itself mostly in his urgent desire to get his end away a.s.a.p., thus ending his prolonged virginal state. Bunny, an all-round gentler soul, can’t be arsed with Blair’s new food fads (‘Romany Fig Polenta with Cuitlacoche Tips and Sorrel-Smoked Bushmeat Lardons’, anyone?), and wants nothing more exotic than a full English breakfast, a nice cuppa tea, and a one-way ticket back to residential care in Albion.
Meanwhile, back in the (former) USSR, Ludmila is busy fending off anal rape by her grandfather, accidentally killing him in the process, which means he cannot sign his veterans’ pension vouchers, which means the family will starve. So, despite her young girl dreams of running away to the west with her soldier boy boyfriend, Misha, to work as ‘an administrator’ or ‘a secretary’ in a nice warm office, she and her oafish brother Maksimilian are dispatched by their mother and grandmother to sell the family’s only asset, their tractor, and thence to a life of supposed prostitution in the nearest town – which instigates a further unfortunate series of events.
These overlapping stories eventually intertwine, of course, through Ludmilla inadvertently winding up on a Russian brides website, and the ever-priapic, not to mention highly suggestible, Blair spotting her. Blair and Bunny are escorted to a nightclub by shadowy Home Office rep Donald Lamb, where they are introduced to the American club owner, Truman, whose business interests – aside from nightclubs and the health service – include the marketing of a fizzy Red Bull-like drink, whose hallucinogenic effects include the removal of conscience. Blair, with a reluctant Bunny in tow, are rapidly sent off on an R & D trip to Ublilsk, which turns out to be really more about R & R. There they are met by Ivan, whose website brings some much-needed revenue into his war-torn homeland, or at least into his own pocket, fleecing as he does both the indigenous girls looking for the first route out, and the desperate men who come to source them. Not a few of the blonde beauties wind up bumping and grinding in Truman’s club.
Not having read the prize-winning predecessor Little God Vernon, I am not really in
a position to compare and contrast, but the general impression to be gleaned is that it must have been better than this offering. While it was a courageous decision not to repeat the same formula, and so swap Vernon’s American white trash argot for this outing’s best of British speech mannerisms (not forgetting the ‘translated’ swathes of dialogue in Ubli, a language Soviet scholars once reasoned was ‘the most exquisitely tailored to the expression of disdain’), maybe last time the satire was sharper, the wit more incisive.
Not that there aren’t good things here. Only the most blinkered ideologue of market forces will not baulk at Truman’s robust rationale for the triumph of capitalism, i.e. greed (‘We hold the franchise on freedom’, he tells our boys). Similarly, Blair’s ‘scourge of terrorism’ morphs nicely into Bunny’s ‘scourge of tourism’. Also, the empty rhetoric of phrases which have now passed virtually unnoticed into everyday media-speak, such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’, are savagely lampooned in the Grand Guignol climax. If nothing else, this book does illustrate the dangers of letting medicine slip into private hands, whose motivation is profit.

 

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So, Pierre is clearly on the side of the angels, and his heart is in the right place. The world really has gone to hell in a handcart, and nice people are at a premium. The trouble is, the characters are cardboard cut-outs, and the denouement is gratuitous in the extreme. True, a satirical giant like Thomas Pynchon can populate his page with an ever increasing cast of spear carriers, but with him there are always the highly complex plots to compensate. Everything that happens here is either entirely predictable, or frankly unbelievable. Furthermore, Pierre has been criticised for his egregious word play, although it does not bother this reader excessively. However, it can sometimes feel superimposed as an afterthought, rather than stemming organically from the text. When Joyce’s vowels moved, there were usually several meanings behind it. Here, it can seem just for the sake of it.
Perhaps, finally, that is the risk of extreme forms of writing: either they work wonderfully well, or simply fall flat on their faces. This book is mad, but it could be an awful lot madder.
It’s like this: when all those end-of-year ‘Best of’ lists are being compiled next December, it’s unlikely that Ludmila’s Broken English is going to feature prominently on them. Not is it on the cards that it will make the Booker Man nomination lists, long or short (although stranger things have happened with that particular prize). At the same time, it is not a complete and unmitigated disaster, and could without tedium serve to wile away an inter-city train journey for you, if you get tired of reading the newspaper and don’t feel like listening to your I-Pod.
Now, perhaps I should go looking for a copy of Little God Vernon. Either that, or put my money on novel number three fulfilling another hoary old critical cliché, the ‘welcome return to form’.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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