It’s not very often that the protagonist of a novel is described with disgust but yet manages to elicit our sympathies, but that is just one of the many astonishing things about this wonderful book. The central character is Helen Franklin, a fairly pitiable woman in her early 40s working as a translator in Prague, a woman so ‘ordinary’ the narrator describes her as “Reader, witness, here is what you see: a woman so nondescript as to almost vanish.”
The novel is haunted by Melmoth, a character from folklore who was said to have witnessed Christ’s resurrection and lied about it, cursed to forever haunt the earth and observe humankind in all their ugliness – always present for every indiscretion and misdemeanour. Helen comes across Melmoth through a collection of papers given to her by a friend Karel (himself driven demented by this haunting figure). Within these papers are personal accounts of individuals and their crimes – ranging from a jealous boy outing Jewish neighbours in the Holocaust to a Turkish bureaucrat who accidentally helped facilitate the Armenian genocide. Perry weaves these accounts through the mundanities of Helen’s life, building to her own shocking revelation.
There is a real sense of claustrophobia in the novel, partly due to the setting (a narrow-laned Prague cloaked in darkness) but mainly due to the omniscience of the narrator. We become Melmoth the watcher, detached and observing events in Helen’s life, guided by a narrator scathing in their opinions. Even the setting is given to us with opinion: “Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust wept there” and the constant direct address and use of imperative heightens the sense that we as the watcher are also being watched – and judged.
It took a while to get started with this as it is so rich and quite an eerie read. It reminded me of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, but without the overtly stylised gothic overtones.