The Guard by Peter Terrin, transl. by David Colmer (MacLehose – August 2012)
Michel and Harry patrol the basement of a luxury skyscraper as an exodus leaves them with fewer and fewer residents to protect from possible intruders. Little is known about the circumstances behind the evacuation of the forty residents. Is a nuclear war raging or a chemical disaster of catastrophic proportions; the guards simply don’t know. The story is told by Michel. But not only is he set up to be an unreliable narrator, we are also made to understand that the guards are literally trapped in the dark cellar without receiving any news from outside. Although they are employed by a security firm, which they refer to as ‘the Organisation’, no communication is established. In fact Michel and Harry pride themselves with managing security without supervision, and make an effort to follow company policies even in this extreme situation, always worried an inspector might call to check standards are being kept. Essentially, the guards live from one supply delivery to the next, never knowing what is going on beyond the bulletproof gates, or if indeed, the Organisation has altogether forgotten about them. The one thing that keeps them motivated is the futile thought of promotion. They are convinced that if they perform their task to everyone’s satisfaction sooner or later a cushy post as bodyguards to the elite will be theirs.
This dystopian tale is a rich and gripping mix of all the ingredients that make for a truly haunting atmosphere. Influences from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, McCarthy’s The Road and Orwell’s 1984 seem only too apparent and all roll into one with a hint of Golding’s Lord of Flies thrown in for good measure. The story starts slowly but before long the reader is hooked. After only a few pages the writing proves to be compelling in its bleak yet astute tone. We willingly forgive and forget how implausible the turns of this story are as insignificant daily routines are craftily described to illustrate that the guards’ lives consist of little else than rationing their liquid soap resources, tracing the moves of a housefly and maintaining their uniform in impeccable condition. The short chapters are reminiscent of diary entrances, and through them we learn about the guards’ background; Harry used to be a farmer’s son from up North while Michel had been to university prior to joining the Organisation. All information is conveyed in small doses, more or less as news bulletins rather than as elaborate reports, which on one hand adds to the story’s urgency while on the other it encourages the reader to read between the lines or, more aptly, between disjointed chapters. For example, why won’t the Organisation allow them more than five hours sleep?
We are introduced to the residents: Mrs Privalova who rents Garage 22, Mr Van der Burg-Zethoven and his hairless cat, Claudia, the servant, and her alleged sex-life, and the snotty Jewish kid that keeps bothering them. But when the residents one by one abandon their flats, boredom becomes paranoia and paranoia becomes something darker still; something we would prefer to think of as ‘uncharacteristic’. This emotional build-up of crisis is well structured to maximise its impact. The persistent ‘drips of doubt’ eventually make the reader’s expectations spill over and suspicion starts to contaminate each line: What if they are the last survivors? What if there won’t be another supply delivery? Have they lost count during the evacuation? But nothing is ever confirmed; nothing is known.
The novel is organised in three sections, each marks a different stage in the guards’ mental journey from conscientious personnel to deluded tyrants. For me the story really comes alive in the second section when a third guard is sent to the basement as reinforcement; a twist which seems to occur rather late in the book. Without wanting to give too much away, this third guard really stirs up the tension and infuses the situation with even more fear, suspicion and doubt. Shrewdly, a web of conflicting data is accumulated to build a case against this long awaited new arrival. From here on in the thriller gets chillier.
The futuristic setting doesn’t detract for the universal questions that are raised. The human dilemma at the heart of this story is timeless, and hence resonant. Generally I feel it is laudable if an author explores difficult topics with political relevance. Nevertheless, I wasn’t always too convinced about how Terrin manages controversial issues such as racial hatred and sexism. Such heavy themes seem to come up ‘accidentally on purpose’ and remain standing in the room like a herd of elephants. Instead of adding to the story, these forced attempts of conveying political awareness tend to reduce this otherwise so exquisitely supple and understated storytelling to a heap of clichés. Luckily this remains on the periphery. Overall the author hones in on the characters’ tactile responses.
When it comes to tension and emotional turmoil Peter Terrin really knows his craft. This is his sixth publication and it won him the European Union Prize for Literature. Furthermore, The Guard was nominated for the Libris Prize for Literature. It is not surprising to learn that Terrin has also written extensively for the stage as his sense of timing is rather superb even though he rarely uses it for comic effect. His style is lean and slick and dry, and powerful at that.