Monday, 8 September 2008

kensington gardens [w. rodrigo fresán]

Sometimes at this point, the critic stares at his screen knowing there's a whole torrent of words waiting to reveal themselves, but he or she doesn't know how to access them. Every review is a little ballet of its own, a dance between the creator(s) of the piece reviewed and the reviewer. It's often when the piece is most affecting that the reviewer most wants to remain as a mere consumer, least wants to get on stage themselves. He or she needs kicking, they can't find the motivation, they're like a sulky child going, do I have to?

Children is as good a link as any. Fresán, an Argentinian, (this will be significant for reasons you would least expect) has written a book, called Kensington Gardens, which is about two childrens' writers. One is J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, inhabitant of West London, a late Victorian and a real person. The other is Peter Hook, creator of Jim Yang, a boy who possesses a chronocycle which allows him to move backwards and forwards through time. Peter Hook is also a resident of West London, a child of the sixties, but Peter Hook is a fictional character. Both authors make a fortune by inventing stories about a boy who will never grow old. Both lost a brother in their youth, and both feel that they were most at home in childhood, and spend their adulthood trying to return to that state through the act of writing.

I am conscious of the fact I am only scratching the surface. I may be on stage but I'm not exactly singing my heart out. Or whatever you do in a ballet. That's because I want to say.... and I'm not too sure how to get there.

Kensington Gardens is a book about childhood. It's also a book about writing. It's also a book about London. It's a book about fact and fiction. It's such a surprising book that in many ways it feels like the best way to describe its properties is just to list them. It tells the story of Barrie's life, in rapidfire, detailed, urgent prose, narrated by the book's other author, Peter Hook. Of course, one of the ways to make a book compelling is to find a compelling story to tell, and in Barrie's curious life, Fresán finds just that. At times the novel seems like a biography, a work of non-fiction, as it takes the reader from point to point in Barrie's career, and the way his doomed attempt to escape adulthood impacted on the lives of the five brothers he used as inspiration for his most famous creation. However, Fresán recognises that there are things that only fiction can reveal. He hunts down Barrie's touching yet ludicrous project, pursuing it to its bitter end, getting under the skin of a man who never adjusted to being a man. Though I should note that I only know Fresán's Barrie - and I'm sure Fresán would caution me not to believe everything he writes. The point, consolidated by the secondary fictional narrative of Peter Hook and Jim Yang is that Fresán isn't really writing about Barrie. He's writing about what it means to be a child; to cease to be a child; to grow older; to see our childhood dreams fade; to live with the meaning of that; unto the end.

The secondary story reaffirms this. Peter Hook (a pseudonym) is the son of a more-or-less forgotten sixties English rock star and his cut-glass wife, who died in a plane crash shortly after the death of their younger son, Baco. They are participants in that nostalgically venerated time, the swinging sixties, associates of Dylan and the Beatles and Julie Christie and Robert Fraser and everyone else you could care to mention who contributed to making London the kind of Neverland it briefly was. Fresán writes, in his notes, that he is a child of the sixties. In writing about that time, he's writing about the dreams that seeped across the Atlantic, found some underground stream to propagate themselves, conjuring a world which was always both real and fictional at the same time.

This is the stuff of Fresán's childhood dreams, or at least a part of them. In writing the story of Peter Hook and his bohemian parents, Fresán gives life to those dreams, just as Barrie, an extremist childhoodian, invented Peter Pan in order to give life to childhood dreams which otherwise, of biological neccessity, would wither on the vine.

Kensington Gardens is one of those books that takes a while to get into, but when you do it seizes you, refusing to let you put it down. In part this is down to the simple effectiveness of Fresán's storytelling, much of it in the present tense. In part it's because he conjures Barrie's world so effectively; and indeed London as a whole. It's a sweeping, convincing depiction of a city and its society. Remarkably, in the postscript notes, Fresán reveals that he's only once been to London. When he stayed for a few days in a cheap hotel on the edge of town. He knows London best as an airport (the airport where Hook is snatched as a child) he passes through. His meticulous depiction of my city is, in fact, a description of an imaginary city; the whole of London becomes his Neverland, and of course, it is all the more convincing as a result. We don't read books to see the world we can see with our own eyes, we read them to see what it looks like through someone else's imagination.

Fresán's notes at the end of the book mention his friend Alan Pauls, as well as Roberto Bolano, "with us forever". Kensington Gardens is not his first novel, but is the first to be translated (with supreme fluency by Natasha Wimmer) into English. It feels odd that he writes with such brilliance about the past, describing for example the way that Barrie (and Hook) always sat facing backwards in trains, as their fascination was in what lay behind them, not ahead. Reading Fresán, as well as his noted companions, I feel a little as though I'm reading the future. Or rather, to be more precise, I'm reading the books that shall be read in the future, that the future is waiting to catch up with. Perhaps it will happen sooner that I anticipate. There's a quotation on the back of Kensington Gardens written by Jonathan Lethem (who I've never read) praising the book and saying at last 'we pathetic English-only readers' can get a taste of Fresán's genius. I am glad it's him saying that, and not me. It feels odd that London, and Britishness (Barrie was after all a Scot) should be captured so much more vividly by an Argentinian than I've seen it captured by most of our own writers, an Argentine who's barely visited these shores. And then again, of course, it isn't odd, because what's required to capture these things (if capture is the right word) is not local knowledge, but a sense of vision, which is also known as imagination. A commodity which Fresán, Pauls, Bolano and co possess in frightening abundance.

There, I'll step back. The dance is over and I've finished my singing for now. Until the next time. I've succeeded in not mentioning Harry Potter (which I haven't read). I've also not explained, Patricia, why this book is also about you, and then, and all the rest. The only thing I'm left wondering is when we here shall start to assemble our childhood dreams, or at least a part of them, from over there. (Rather than over there.)

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