Sunday, 20 March 2011

seconds out (martin kohan)

Seconds Out is a playful novel, reminiscent of the work of Cercas, which explores the nature of time, among other things. It's based around the 17 seconds that occurred between Jack Dempsey being knocked down and returning to the ring during a 1923 heavyweight boxing title fight by the Argentine challenger Luis Firpo. Even those with no interest in boxing will be aware that 17 seconds doesn't sound right. Standard procedure, which was not applied in this instance, is a count of ten seconds. Dempsey gets off the hook, returns to the fight and wins. This twist and the way in which the news is reported in Argentina has catastrophic effects. The book has a chapter for each of the 17 seconds, examining the incident from the perspective of Dempsey himself, a photographer and the referee. Extending the investigation of the moment, the book is framed by the device of two Patagonian journalists on a local paper who have to write an article fifty years afterwards on an event from 1923. Verani is writing about the fight whilst Ledesma, his colleague, writes about the simultaneous visit of Strauss' Viennese orchestra and their playing of a Mahler symphony.

Using disparate ingredients, Kohan stitches together a loose tapestry of information, bringing Mahler's biography and early 20th Century Argentine history together. It makes for a strange, breezy read. The presence of a mysterious narrator, who's trying to get to the bottom of a suicide which occurred at the time of the fight and used to be a junior to the two journalists, adds to the sense of a narrative which is always on the point of revealing a great secret. In truth, the revelations which do occur seem somehow underwhelming. There's something of a flawed conjuring trick about the book: it grips the attention with the anticipation of the trick to come; but the trick itself is less impressive than the set-up. However, it may be that that's part of the point. It's an anti-narrative. From the point of view of an Argentine, the wrong man wins and history forsakes the challenger. Argentina becomes a place where the likes of Strauss never visit. The clock runs backwards. Seventeen seconds that changed the perspective of a nation, Kohan might be suggesting.

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