Monday, 2 March 2015

Book of the Month: Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkas)

Barracuda is Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel. His fourth was the brilliant The Slap, which deservingly sold multimillion copies in many countries, and was nominated for several prestigious literary awards (including The Man Booker Prize, if I remember correctly).

Barracuda tells the story of an underdog. Danny Kelly, of Greek-Scottish heritage, comes from a working class family. His father is a long-distance lorry driver (whose antidote to the bitter disillusionment of not having achieved much in his life is to rail against those who have made something of their lives and accuse them of enjoying those privilege by dint of birth than talent; that is when he is not fulminating against the Australian government for supporting the Iraq war), while his mother works in a hair-dressing saloon. Not the sort of family background that is conducive to academic high achievement. Yet Danny Kelly is a prodigy. The word prodigy is not to be used lightly. You can’t be a prodigy in just anything. Have you heard of a prodigy long-distance lorry driver? Or a prodigy hair-dresser? I didn’t think so. In order to be considered a prodigy you are required to display talent in subjects and areas in which not everyone excels. The word prodigy suggests an inherent talent, God’s gift if you happen to believe in an all-powerful omnipotent entity which, in a manner that is difficult to grasp by humans, decides to shower some blessed individuals with its blessings. Anyone can be a long-distance lorry driver or a hair-dresser. How much talent is required to drive a vehicle or cut hair? The fields in which you can prove to be a prodigy are, sadly, restricted. It’s either academics or sport, I am afraid. And not all academic subjects are thought worthy of requiring their practitioners being prodigies, either. You don’t have to be a prodigy to be a social worker.

Danny Kelly, the protagonist of Barracuda, is not a prodigy in any of the academic subjects. He is not expected to and does not aspire to find solutions to questions that win you the Nobel. Danny is a prodigy in sport. No, not chess. Danny is a prodigy swimmer. Such is Danny’s prodigious talent for swimming that he manages to get scholarship to a very posh school in Melbourne, the yearly tuition fees of which exceed the GDP of a Third World country. There is no way Danny’s parents are going to afford the fees of this school; not when there are Danny’s younger siblings to think of. And neither his younger brother (Theo) nor sister (Regan) is a prodigy in anything, which means they are going to have to go to some shitty school in the low-life area of Melbourne. (This causes some angst to Danny’s father, who labours under the logic that since his two younger children are not particularly good in anything and therefore fated to lead a life of mediocrity (long-distance lorry driver, hair-dresser, social worker at tops), the eldest boy, who actually has talent for something, should sacrifice the one opportunity that could give him a smidgen of a chance of breaking out of the working class rut, and spend the remainder of his life in the same prison of disillusionment as his father.) The father thinks of various ruses why Danny could not, should not, ought not, surely durst not, go for his morning swimming practice, certainly not on weekends, early in the morning—and, if he must, he can use the f**king public transport without dragging his mother out of the warm bed—and goes spare when Danny is having none of it. Danny, it has to be said, is a driven boy. He is utterly convinced that he is the best; that he has got what it takes; he can cut the mustard. He is the best swimmer of his generation; he is going to represent Australia at Commonwealth and he is going to win medals for his country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  He will show all the posh c**ts in the posh school (which he labels as Cunts College in his mind) that he is better than them. (The posh c**ts, in their turn despise Danny because he does not belong there (which, if you think of it unemotionally, he doesn't.) And he is better than all of them, when it comes to swimming and winning races. The school’s Hungarian swimming coach, Mr Torma, does what he can to feed into Danny’s belief (which does not require feeding) that he, Danny, is the best. Except that it turns out that he isn’t. When it comes to the crunch Danny can’t cut the mustard. In the under 16 championship in Japan Danny fails to win any medals. He does not even come in the top three. He comes fifth. How can this be? He cannot lose. But that’s what happens. What is worse, a posh Golden Boy from Danny’s school whom Danny heartily despises wins the title in Japan. It is clear that the posh boy would get to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics, even though even he probably knows that he wouldn’t win anything for the country. The place in the Olympic squad is Danny’s, by right. Except that he is not going to get it because, against all predictions and despite being a certified prodigy, Danny is not good enough to make it to the top.

Barracuda is the story of what happens when you fail to achieve what you were convinced you were destined to achieve. It is a story of what happens when your dreams fail you, or (if you want to look  at it another way), you fail to achieve your dreams and fail everyone including yourself.

Daniel Kelly has to come to terms with the knowledge that he is not going to make it as a champion swimmer. He is a loser. How does Danny deal with it? Not very well, I am afraid. Not good academically he performs poorly at the exit exams and ends up doing a semiskilled job in a supermarket. Then comes another life-changing moment in Danny’s life which his school tutor would have had no hesitation in describing as chequered. On the day of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Danny gate-crashes into the party of one of the posh pupils in the swimming squad of his school with whom he has formed a sort of friendship in school. In the party Danny manages to achieve the levels of intoxication that would have had Micky Rourke shaking his head in disapproval and attacks his erstwhile friend, who (not unsurprisingly) wants Danny out of his house, with a broken bottle. The former prodigy is now required to spend a few months in prison. In prison Danny, thanks to another male prisoner, discovers the joys of sodomy and his sexual orientation. Upon his release from prison Danny meets a Scotsman who is of similar, homoerotic, orientation, and goes with him to Scotland, where he meets his great-aunt. Danny, incidentally, has, since his release from prison, taken a violent dislike of water and concocts all sorts of reason to avoid swimming, which irritates his lover no ends, although that is not the reason why the two split up. Upon his return to Australia, Danny does what he can—you suspect, by now, that he is a natural at this—to irritate and insult his family, in particular his father whom, in a weird twist of logic which is beyond the likes of you and me, Danny blames for his failure as a swimmer. Then Danny’s old coach, Mr Torma, kicks the bucket and it turns out that the coach was blaming himself all these years for Danny’s failure to succeed at the highest level as a swimmer (but not only Danny’s; the coach coached a couple of other losers who didn’t make it either, although one of them had the decency to off himself), and the coach’s way of atonement was to leave Danny a third of his estate. What will Danny do with his wealth? You will not be surprised to know that the novel ends predictably.

Barracuda is a novel that appears to go in various directions. The reader gets the feeling that the central theme of the novel is how one deals with the crushing knowledge that one is not good enough to achieve one’s ambition. However Tsiolkas decides to take the story in different directions, before returning in the closing stages on the novel, to the theme, which is of redemption.

Danny Kelly is a not a protagonist one easily takes to. That in itself is not a problem; Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a repulsive character. But he is interesting. The trouble, here, is that the character of Danny Keely does not have many layers to it. He is just not that interesting. As you read the novel you get used to him. He is like an impacted wisdom tooth (without wisdom). Danny Kelly is an outsider. He is the poor kid in a posh school where he does not belong, and has an ambition to excel at a game children from his background are not supposed to even think of. However, when he fails to achieve the grade Danny does not seem to glean any insight from it. The theme kind of peters off. The same happens with Danny’s same-sex relationship with Scotsman Clyde. This strand of the novel, which occupies the middle of the novel, does not lead anywhere. Danny's visit to her great-aunt seems promising: is Danny going to discover his roots? But it, too, is abandoned half-way through. Danny visits his great aunt, admires her Scottish accent and the tat with which she has cluttered her house, and . . . err, that's it. 

There are some parallels with The Slap, which made Tsiolaks’s international reputation, in that one seminal event—in this case Danny’s failure at a crucial tournament— sets the trajectory of the rest of Danny’s life (and rest of the novel), except that it seems a tad unconvincing. Danny, the driven child who is determined to make it at the highest level, just lies over and dies with one failure at a tournament.

Barracuda is an easy novel to read, and, despite its five hundred plus pages, can be finished in one or two sittings. At times, especially when he is describing Danny’s exploits in swimming, Tsiolaks is inspired. At other times (many other times) the prose is too stylistic and seems contrived. Danny, the protagonist, is supposed to be an admirer of Graham Greene; but the prose style of his creator is nothing like Greene’s. The frequent changes from third person to first person are unnecessary, as are the changes in the tense of the narrative (sometimes in a single paragraph).

Like its protagonist Barracuda is not a complete failure, but neither is it riveting like its predecessor, the supremely entertaining The Slap. It’s a good novel to take on a holiday (if you can stomach the brutal descriptions of homosexual sex; so probably not for tense housewives and do-gooder fusspot nuns), but that’s about it.