Close on the heels of Gentleman of the Road, J has supplied me with another of Michael Chabon’s books, in a not-so-discreet but much appreciated effort to nudge me through the rest of his oeuvre. At little more than 120 pages, this is more novella than full-length and, despite a haunting underlying subject, it has the feel of an amuse-bouche: a casual skirmish with one of the great characters of English literature. It’s the tale of an elderly man who was once famous for his extraordinary deductive powers across the length and breadth of the British Empire. But times have changed: the pea-soupers of London have given way to a peaceful retirement in the Sussex countryside, and the chaos of the human city to the quietly organised hives of honeybees. Little can tempt the old man from his self-imposed isolation; until, in the summer of 1944, he encounters a curious duo: a young boy with a splendid African grey parrot on his shoulder.
Such a combination would be unusual at the best of times, but the pair are particularly striking because the boy appears to be mute, while the parrot is surprisingly loquacious, given to quoting strings of German numbers. As the boy, Linus, is a Jewish refugee from Germany, the parrot’s peculiarity begins to attract interest from others besides the old man. What can the numbers mean? Are they codes? References? The key to Swiss bank accounts? When a shocking crime leaves a man dead and the parrot missing, the old man decides that the time has come to emerge from his retirement for one last case – not for patriotism or glory, but to reunite one lonely little boy with his only friend.
I’ve come to enjoy Chabon’s manner of writing very much. He has a habit of starting sentences and then becoming distracted by the beauty of his words: he savours them, revels in them, twists the sentence into an exuberant parabola, and only then winds up with a full stop. Although I haven’t read as much Conan Doyle as I suspect I would need, in order to judge, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are also rich seams of allusion built into the tale of this never-named but unmistakable old man. Even the title is doubly allusive, giving it a bitterly ironic tang. And, as ever, Chabon takes a particular world, a particular genre, and shifts it as a way of exploring Jewish experience.
There are moments, especially towards the climax of the novel, where Chabon seems to get slightly carried away with his own momentum, and the denouement isn’t entirely satisfactory, as certain questions still remain. Obviously, beware of spoilers ahead. I’d like to ask others who’ve read the book: am I right in identifying the meaning of the numbers as the numbers of the railway carriages in which Linus’s friends and family were carried off to the camps? Things were never quite explained, but it seems that this was what Chabon was getting at – a list of numbers which are far more poignant and significant than any sequence of bank accounts, and a kind of personal mantra which no one but the old man can truly understand.
It seemed significant to me that only the old man – who, after all, isn’t known as the most personable and emotionally astute of people – is able to comprehend the boy’s utter loneliness. I was struck by the fact that, in trying so hard to reunite Linus with his parrot, the old man shows how much he appreciates the value of one great, loyal, unyielding friend in one’s life – much as he once had. That is itself is moving, and it’s the faint echo of intuition between Linus and the old beekeeper which gave this little book its power for me, weaving a thread of humanity between the more extreme secondary characters. It’s only a glimpse of a story – the tale of a few weeks in a single wartime summer, rather than anything more developed – but it has a sober, lingering charm.
Now I suppose we have to wait to see what my next encounter with the works of Chabon will be. I have my money on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay cropping up at some point…