Friday, 23 March 2012

Capital by John Lanchester

It’s been an interesting few years since the wheels came off the world of finance. An atmosphere that lends itself to apocalyptic predictions develops and everything is freighted with a feeling of ‘the last days’ or ‘the end of’ rather than another variation of the same old plod which sustains us through quieter times. The same atmosphere also gives writers the idea that they have to capture this spirit of the age on paper. Sebastian Faulks got in first with his disappointing A Week in December. I’m pleased to say that Capital is a much better book.


Like A Week in December, Capital features a host of different characters whose station in life holds a certain grip on the public imagination: the banker holding out for his £1,000,000 bonus, his awful wife, the premiership footballer, the asylum seeker who works as a traffic warden, the young man getting mixed up with Islamist firebrands. Another character is Zbigniew, a Polish builder and decorator who shares a room in Croydon with his old friend Piotr, both over in Blighty for a few years so that they can save enough money to take back home and help their families.

Zbigniew has got himself mixed up with an English lady who with all charity, can only be described as an emotional boa constrictor. He decides to tell Piotr all about it, a confession made a lot easier with a drink in hand:

At the Polish club in Balham, Zbigniew sat with a bison-grass vodka and a bottle of Żywiec beer, waiting for Piotr... Piotr came in, looked over, saw what he was drinking, made a sign with two fingers pointing up in curls at the sides of his head – their private gesture for bison, therefore for bison-grass vodka – and came over from the bar with two more vodkas and two more Żywiecs. They touched glasses and downed the vodkas and then took a shot of beer.

Zbigniew explains the situation, only for Piotr to get on his moral high horse and inform him that he has trapped the lady into falling in love with him, and that it will only end in trouble.

Zbigniew, because he had not been expecting this, and because much of it was right, felt himself become very angry. His head filled up with blood; he was exalted and exhilarated by rage. “You say this because you are a priest? A priest hearing my confession, or giving a denunciation from the pulpit?” Piotr got up and walked out. And that was that. Zbigniew sat there and drank his beer and vodka, then another round, then another, and went home drunker than he had been for a long time.

Still, he’s in the right place to get pissed. He reflects on this the night when he finally gives Davina her papers:

The bar was crowded for a Tuesday night – but then it was always crowded, like everywhere else around this part of town. If Zbigniew had to sum up London in a single image, there would be a number of candidates: a group of young Poles sitting in a flat watching television in their socks; two dustbins outside a house, with a plank of wood balanced between them, to reserve a parking space for a builder’s van; the Common on a sunny weekend day, with exposed white skin stretching to the horizon. But the winner would be the high street on a busy evening, full of young people bent on getting drunk – the frenzy of it, the particular pitch of the noise, the sex and anger and hysteria. Zbigniew had once had a sense of the British as a moderate, restrained nation. It was funny to think of that now. It wasn’t true at all. They drank like mad people. They drank to make themselves happy, and because alcohol was and end in itself. It was a good thing and people want good things, want more and more of them. So, because alcohol was good, the British wanted more and more of it. With drink, they were like Buzz Lightyear: to infinity and beyond!

Booze, bad banking and bad relationships. It’s only going to end badly...

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