Originally published in New Welsh Review 95
Curious realities and unreliable narration scuffle for attention in Michael Nath's debut novel La Rochelle, set during the hostage crisis of 2004. Taking an off-centre seat in the playhouse of the protagonist's mind, the reader's view of what really happens on stage is skewed by the delusions and deviations of Dr. Mark Chopra, a chaste and passive neurologist infatuated with his drinking pal's girlfriend. When the girl, Laura, goes missing, the two men fail to spring into action, instead boozing their way through the two weeks that pass as Mark performs a tactical withdrawal into the works of Nietzsche and Cervantes, amongst others. As the story is slowly uncoiled "like a reel of film", Mark's not-so-desperate search for solutions subjects the reader to a seemingly never-ending deviation from the matter at hand; "full of holiday invitations from what we're meant to be thinking of, is our old friend the mind."
It is Nath's transcription of the thought processes of Mark that provide the novel's early hook, as the good doctor desperately attempts to take control of a narrative which initially casts him in a tertiary role. He uses the blank space afforded him by Nath to half-convince himself, and his audience, of his own importance. Volleying between crippling self-deprecation and delusions of grandeur, this deftly constructed voice is one of intriguing oppositions. Mark is erudite yet depraved, cultured yet uncouth. He contradicts himself, he contains multitudes. In other words, he's as real as any one of us. But as realistic and admirable a depiction of the deluges of the human mind that this is, it can't hope to sustain the reader's interest over the course of 280 pages. And so the novel begins to show its weaknesses, as you realise that Nath's adroit portrayal of the thought processes of one man is too often only slightly more interesting than the thought processes of any other person at any given time. Verbosity creeps in. The narrative starts to plod. You almost stop caring.
In an interview on Route's website, the author confesses he wanted to write a novel that wasn't too much like a 'novel': "It had to have the qualities of life instead, such as thickness, abundance, presence, a degree of
untidiness. I was after something baroque and dishevelled, with a coat of varnish." If this is indeed what he set out to achieve, then he has succeeded. In this sense, the novel is a resolutely un-commercial literary experiment, and for this Michael Nath will no doubt be commended. Yet you can't help but feel that the "coat of varnish" was too hastily applied, that if Mark's outpouring of literary references, pseudo-philosophy, half-relevant knowledge and self-affirmation are in need of a good editor, then perhaps their author was too. At least one hundred pages of La Rochelle show evidence of being too caught up in achieving this "degree of untidiness". Of course, this is the point – but it forces the novel to sag heavily in the middle, and the end suffers for it.
The path into new equilibrium will begin too late for some readers, but the final third of La Rochelle almost makes it worth sticking around. Almost. As a supposedly chance meeting with a psychic in designer glasses pushes Mark toward the role of gallant knight, the novel begins to build into what you hope will be the crescendo the reader's investment deserves. However, despite a deliciously unsettling trip into the moonlit strangeness of England's West Country, the action soon returns to London where everything is wrapped up rather disappointingly quickly, as if Nath were running out of time. Revelations are plentiful but dealt with fleetingly, and have the air of existing simply because twists and turns were expected to be found in some form at the novel's end.
La Rochelle is set during the Beslan school hostage crisis. But Mark and Ian's failure to act upon the assumption that Laura has been abducted draws more obvious comparisons with another kidnapping story of the time – that of British citizen Ken Bigley by Islamic extremists shortly after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. This is perhaps La Rochelle's saving grace, as it rises above its self-inflicted untidiness as a haunting reminder of our then-Prime Minister's apparent inability to secure the safe release of a man who was to be cruelly punished for his government's decision to go to war (it is, then, an undoubted shame that it was not published during that particular PM's tenure). Despite this underlying poignancy, however, La Rochelle is still a novel that continually forces the reader to ask themselves whether it's worth the effort to continue reading. Michael Nath has undeniable talent, but in this debut it is only shown during sparkling glimpses. Nath will write his masterpiece, but this experiment in mimesis isn't it.