Sunday, 6 October 2013

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Burgess’s magnum opus begins with one of the more striking opening sentences in English literature: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” So start the memoirs of Kenneth Toomey, successful if mediocre writer and playwright, homosexual, and brother-in-law to the late pope, Gregory XVII.

Roughly spanning the period from the Great War to 1980, Toomey’s dubious recollections are being gathered for the purpose of canonisation of Pope Gregory, Toomey being witness to a ‘miracle’ performed while he was still Don Carlo Campanati. Toomey is unable to stick to the story, however, and meanders across the events of the twentieth century, a few of which take place inside Nazi Germany. In 1937 one of his novels has been turned into a film by the regime and is being shown at a gala hosted by Goebbels. Kenneth finds the whole event pretty ghastly from the start, although the appearance of sparkling German wine improves his spirits:

I passed on into the huge brilliantly lighted reception room. The only uniforms were on the members of the Hitlerjugend, delectable boys with straight hair, probably performers in Hitlerjunge Quex. They carried the canapés round; gloved and whiteclad elders brought chilled Sekt, a wine I have always preferred to champagne.

It’s quite a spread of food and drink, although Ken steers clear of the grub:

...not only goulash, but a kind of rich soldier’s stew with bobbing sausages, pork cutlets with mushrooms and radishes, beef in a sauces of spiced mugwort, wobbling pink pyramids of saffron custard, a cream cake in the shape of a fylfot, a Tower of Babel chocolate confection reeking like a barbershop of rum, berries of the German forests, cheese the hue of lemons or of leprosy, and, like a warning of heroic times in store, wedges of tough black bread. I ate nothing but drank thirstily of the ample Sekt, while the two hundred or so others spooned in hard, some of them sweating. A godling in mufti who I did not doubt was of the special SS intake in whom not even a filled tooth was acceptable said to me, accurately, “You do not eat.” “No, I do not eat. But I drink.” and I drank, promptly to be refilled. “
Danke sehr.”

By the time the big speech by Goebbels is about to start Kenneth is feeling distinctly green about the gills. The poisonous little man begins his oration, bubbling with anti-Semitism and pomposity, while Ken takes a turn for the worse:

I had felt sick before and been saved by Sekt. Now I was beginning to feel sick of the Sekt. I would, I knew, shortly have to vomit. The Reichsminister seemed to have three or four closely typed pages still to get through. I started gently to move towards one of the open windows. The aims of the artistic policy enunciated by the National Chamber of Film might, said Goebbels, be expressed under seven headings. Oh Christ. First, the articulation of the sense of racial pride, which might, without reprehensible arrogance, be constructed as a just sense of racial superiority. Just, I thought, moving towards the breath of the autumn dark, like the Jews, just like the. This signified, Goebbels went on, not narrow German chauvinism but a pride in being of the great original Aryan race, once master of the heartland and to be so again. The Aryan destiny was enshrined in the immemorial Aryan myths, preserved without doubt in their purest form in the ancient tongue of the heartland. Second. But at this point I had made the open window. With relief the Sekt that seethed within me bore itself mouthward on waves of reverse peristalsis. Below me a great flag with a swastika on flapped gently in the night breeze of autumn. It did not now lift my heart; it was not my heart that was lifting. I gave it, with gargoyling mouth, a litre or so of undigested Sekt. And then some strings of spittle. It was not, perhaps, as good as pissing on the flag, but, in retrospect, it takes on a mild quality of emblematic defiance. When it got back to listening to Goebbels he was on to point seven, which did not seem very different to point one.

It’s an inauspicious start to his stay in the country, but Kenneth, as his memoirs testify, is certainly used to living a colourful life...

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