Karina M. Szczurek
Protea Book House
Review: Ken Barris
Cara Judson is a talented South African writer living in exile in Paris. She is exiled from her past life, specifically from the notoriety that followed a disastrous love affair in South Africa with a famous painter, Lucas Stutterheim. The disaster lies in the fact that his wife Dagmar has committed suicide, and the media have blamed Cara.
The core of the matter is that Cara has written a novel entitled Triangle, which is more than based on their affair. It ends with the suicide of the fictional wife before Dagmar takes her life in reality, so the novel has not merely anticipated the tragedy, but according to public opinion, has actually caused it.
Another triangle develops in Paris in the present between Cara and a Polish researcher named Konrad, who falls in love with her more than she does with him; and with Lucas Stutterheim, whom Cara encounters again at a retrospective of his work. The novel then alternates between past and present, delicately linking the two timeframes.
There is much play on the gaze, on seeing. As Konrad looks at Cara, for example, he imagines that he can read into her character, indeed enter it: “Her eyes seem rounder and bigger than usual. She holds her lips perfectly still, they glow red against her ashen-pale skin… A blank openness, he thinks, as if no expression has ever formed within its features, open and eager to be inscribed.” The irony is that Cara is not particularly available for inscription, at least by Konrad. This is because there are two of versions of her. In Konrad’s presence she is controlling, alternating between vulnerable openness and sudden rejection. The window of her soul only opens briefly for him, and then slams shut. In response to Lucas, however, she is seldom in control, and far more abandoned.
Lucas is a libidinal trickster, in both art and life. He is a serial philanderer, with men as well as women. His work is charged with erotic energy, which is the basis of his fame. This eroticism is connected to gaze, as Konrad walks into the Stutterheim retrospective where he feels scrutinised by the pictures, “exposed, naked, as if he were on display”. Conversely, Cara is aroused by her own nude image in a portrait by Lucas. This link between seeing and eroticism reaches a paradoxical moment where Cara masturbates to the image: her sexuality is awakened on seeing herself from outside, as if the mirrored body, “her other self”, was separate from her.
Invisible Others is well structured, and the situations and characters are absorbing. The opening chapters are elegantly written, but this fluency is not sustained. The syntax can become convoluted occasionally, with awkward negotiation of tenses, and a few malapropisms. This should not be a problem though: Szczurek is Polish, as was her illustrious compatriot Joseph Conrad. His style was also influenced by his mother tongue, and it did his career no harm. In all, an excellent debut novel.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014
- Barris’s novel Sunderland, a collaboration with Michael Cope, will be available in May.