Two men, one digging a hole, the other watching and talking, lay out the history of man’s cruelty to man.
Schopenhauer once said that to gain perspective on yourself, you should act as though you were 50 years in the future, looking back at yourself through the wrong end of a telescope. That’s all well and good as a philosophical conceit, but it’s a flimsy hook from which to hang a novel. Irish-born poet Donovan displays plenty of talent but doesn’t show much inclination to target it on a more cogent piece of writing. The setting is an unnamed small European town that has seen happier times. The narrator is a baker, someone who played an essential role in the town’s life and yet was absolutely insulated from real interaction with another human soul. A war with no apparent cause has swept through the town, foreign troops driving the local soldiers quickly away. In its wake, as with so many modern conflicts, comes the threat of mass civilian extermination. The bulk of the narrative shows the baker digging a deep pit and answering hard questions from an older schoolteacher standing nearby. They talk in self-conscious loops, throwing examples of brutal history at each other—Genghis Khan, Dresden, etc.—while dancing closer to the possibility that the baker has collaborated in horrific ways with the enemy. Since he prefers the company of books to people, it’s not surprising that the baker is most engaging when discussing history. The same can be said of the novel as a whole. Donovan has many interesting ideas about the permanent bloody stains on Europe’s conscience and the evils that men do, but he’s not yet accomplished enough to convey them effectively.
Overconstructed but intermittently superb: an ambitious if flawed debut from a promising writer.