Book Review: Barbarian Spring
by Jonas Luscher
translated from the German by Peter Lewis
Haus Publishing, 2015
John Lancaster’s 2012 novel Capital was set during the financial collapse that started in late 2007 and engulfed the world in 2008. It was widely praised for its dark, sarcastic commentary on the volatile nature of the monied world, but the power of its vision was blunted just a bit by the fact that its readers knew how the story ended, so to speak: the crisis eventually passed, and they all survived – at least in good enough shape to read Lancaster’s novel.
By setting his novel Barbarian Spring (translated from the German Fruhling der Barbaren by Peter Lewis) in the very near future, Jonas Luscher removes that small element of comfort; the world-wide economic apocalypse that flames to life at the climax of his book is lurking out there the periphery of his readers’ portfolios, waiting to strike.
The smug security of jet-setting international capitalism sets the tone for the book’s opening, in which an older and slightly doddering Swiss business executive named Preising, the popular figurehead of a telecommunications electronics company named Prixxing, is telling a story to the unnamed narrator (because the fad of not naming your narrators is, apparently, likewise a global phenomenon) about his recent adventures in the desert “stranded in a foreign country and facing the ruin of their very existence.”
Preising has been sent on a business trip to Tunisia, where he becomes the guest of Slim Malouch, euphemistically called the firm’s Tunisian assembly plant manager, a “wheeler-dealer with a wide portfolio of interests, including electronic goods, phosphates and upmarket tourism.” Malouch’s imperious daughter Saida escorts Preising to a luxury hotel in the Tschub Oasis outside Tunis, where they’re to be guests at an elaborate wedding ceremonies of two odious London businessmen. On the way, they’re witness to a horrific highway crash involving a dozen camels and, tellingly, an enormous tour bus, and they watch aghast as the surviving animals are granted mercy-executions:
Out there in the desert, the gunman was now putting on quite a moving performance. He flung himself down on the dead, silent camel, setting up a wailing every bit as piercing and heart-rending as his animal’s screams had been. His palms stroked the beast’s eyelids, with their long womanly lashes, an shut its widely spaced eyes, from which all signs of life had now departed. Then, calm and dignified, he got to his feet, walked over to the next body and broke down again, lamenting loudly before closing the animal’s eyes.
At the luxury hotel, Preising meets both the bitter English teacher Pippa Grayling and a whole cast of louche, pretentious businessmen wallowing in ostentatious luxury. Preising does his best to remain aloof from the squalid excess he sees all around him – an excess that clearly baffles Pippa, for instance, although our narrator is quick to point out the immunity he believes he shares with Preising:
People like me, though, aren’t easily baffled. He should have realised that by now. Bafflement means encountering some resistance from the world around you, yet someone like me provides hardly any contact surface for it to attack, and the same was true of Preising himself.
It’s an equanimity that’s doomed, however. When the news breaks that the English pound (and the rest of the world’s financial superstructure) has collapsed, the story Preising is telling turns so dark as to be dystopian, and Luscher sarcasm comes into its own:
In effect, what Preising was presenting me with here was a variation on the theme of ‘Where were you when Britain went bankrupt?’. Latterly, this genre had taken over from the earlier ‘Where were you on 9/11?’, a question that constantly forced you to recall the first time – hundreds more were to follow – when you looked at a TV screen and saw a plane crash into one of the Twin Towers. Likewise, we all now vividly remember the moment when the baby-faced PM in his baby-blue silk tie – an unduly optimistic and frivolous choice in the circumstances, I always thought – commenced his speech with the words ‘In thirteen hundred and forty-five, when King Edward the Third told his Florentine bankers …’ Sure, it had far less visual impact than 9/11, but it’s still seared on our collective memory.
The novel’s surreal, twisted climax (among other things, this isn’t a hospitable book for camels) acts as both Lord of the Flies-style parable and loopy cautionary tale, and Barbarian Spring (the title serving a double purpose, as does the sound of Preising’s name) as a whole works a fitful magic on the imagination made very anxious by how close the world recently came to the ruin it so coolly depicts. It’s a quietly memorable performance, not to be missed.