Tom MCarthy’s novel Men in Space is a vertiginous journey of transcendent ambitions taking in political, aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions. Now if that’s not too pretentious a first line – let’s carry on. Set primarily in Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the plot – such as it is – revolves around an eclectic cast of bohemian characters, whose various fates appear to be reflected and refracted through the imagery of a stolen Byzantine Icon painting that traverses Europe: from Sofia to Prague and Amsterdam. With shifting narrative perspectives it’s a thoroughly absorbing multi-vocal study on punctured dreams and a world in chaotic disjuncture.
We have approximately seven main characters to whom we oscillate between, as the narrator’s voice takes in young wannabe artists, actual bohemian artists, a former Bulgarian football referee, political refugees, a curator, a disorientated police agent and the supporting cast of a society that’s waiting for a celebration of new life, but not entirely sure what it will bring. McCarthy has an acute grasp of human fragility, as he seeks to penetrate and deconstruct the foibles of human dreams. Although we only ever get partial perspectives from each character, he succintly captures their personalities and spirits as they intersects and intermingle, in an appropriate backdrop of political upheaval.
The political component serves more as metaphoric furniture than it does an intricate exploration of the particular dynamics; with a broad focus driven by plausibly autobiographical experiences through the eyes of Nick Boardman, a young Englishman and key character living there.
The references to political leaders, the chase initiated by former agents of the USSR to pursue the painting, the New Years Eve party that marks the celebratory birth of the Czech Repubic, all allow for consideration of the story in it’s specific time and place – yet I would dispute a characterisation of the novel as not escaping it’s localised orbit. Its thematic explorations are as acutely applicable now as they were then – even if we have the benefit of 15 years of post break up, and now post crash Europe to contend with. The melancholia of punctured dreams seem rather prophetic.
Anton, the Bulgarian referee whose role is helping his uncle Ilevski identify the right painter to do the job, has an arc that resonates particularly in a certain light for example. He has dreams of escaping this old world entirely – to get to the fabled land of America where he views with certainty a most prosperous future. The refugee escaping to promised lands, has marked currency today in the light of the migrant and refugee explosion in Europe now. Anton’s plan is to apply for an American visa and travel with his wife Helena once money is secured – but political and personal obstacles have been thrown in his way. It is a peculiarly poignant journey, and one that doesn’t escape the metaphysical link with this hypnotic painting. The stories of Nick, Heidi, Ivan, Joost, Helena, Han, Roger, and the nameless police guard – all have – in their own ways – their identities inextricably linked in to the Icon, and McCarthy’s skill in observing these paths unfurl is enjoyable to read.
The voice of Joost, a Dutch curator is to be found through his letters to his partner Han, whilst the police agent gives us his fragmented and increasingly surreal and disorientated reports on the pursuit of the stolen painting: – his voice reflecting a melancholic dissolution of purpose with the coming of the new world attached to an obstinate refusal to adapt. They intersect and drive on a narrative that also includes the plotters behind the painting’s appropriation and planned sale, the painter commissioned to make copies of the artwork and the young artists caught up in the artists’ – Ivan Manasek – circle.
The writing is smart, and beautiful – the eye of the aficianado is present in some of the discourse particularly relating to the artwork itself – discussion of codes reflects an interest in the theorists of postructuralism – but it is an effect expressed elegantly: the eliptical nature of the figurine depicted possesses a discombobulating effect on artists observing it – is it an ascension or a descent being portrayed? – the ambiguity is clearly intentional – with Ivan the artist being consumed by it’s nature as he works on the copy.
Have no fear of being caught up in inaccessible pretension that can befall certain writers who are obsessed with a peculiar theorist, the book is very readable and engaging early on. Stylistically, the use of the present tense in introductions of each new character lent to me a distancing effect affect at first, akin to a surface documentation of a series of facts, but as each segment of narrative continues and oscillates with the other characters the perspective flourishes for the reader. What has begun as a remote style in it’s brief hop between viewpoints takes on a greater intimacy as the novel develops. The switch between this third person narrative and the letters of Joost, or the reports by the police agent, work wonderfully well in providing necessary thrust and depth to this mosaic of a human portrait in uncertain flux during this time. They provide alternative perspectives to this story we have otherwise been more conventionally following through Anton, Nick and the rest.
It is Anton who provides the explanation of the titular reference: he discusses the fate of a Soviet Cosmonaut who is stranded in space – as he was sent up before the collapse of the USSR, now there is no state for him to come down to – a sentiment that sums up the main theme of the book the idea of human disconnection, struggling for transcendence in a febrile, yet fragile world. And it was fascinating to read – as much as the human component I as much enjoyed the sense of place – the character of early 90’s Prague and Amsterdam was evoked with a plausible authenticity that swallowed my imagination whole and I look forward to delving into more of McCarthy’s work.