Swap at the carnival

Swap at the carnival

Carnivalesque
Neil Jordan
Bloomsbury
2017, pp 282
Rs. 599

An intriguing story of losing and finding oneself, that’s what Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan is. File it under magic realism or realistic magic, either way it will take you down the backstreets of the carnival with its alleys lit with fairy lights, circus tent with girls in shimmering tutus performing heart-stopping stunts, rusty rollercoasters, creaky carousels, dodgem cars, and gaily, garishly painted caravans.

Young Andy is captivated, as any young child is, with the romance, magic and fun inherent in a carnival. On the way to a new mall with his parents, the carnival with “the tracery of lights above the gloomy trains caught his imagination, as did the cries of mock terror of the children under the gravitational pull of the rollercoaster or the centrifugal force of the spinning carousel.” Little does he know that the science he has learnt at school will soon be disrupted by another form of education.

The Hall of Mirrors draws him in “like a fly towards a light bulb.” He is amused by the various versions of himself in the mirrors: squat, lanky, thin, but then the magic takes over and Andy dances and leaps to unheard music, light as a feather,  “as if a hive of invisible bees had somehow borne his weight and taken the curse of gravity from his feet.” “Come away, O human child!” says the epigraph of the book; to support that, Andy finds himself wedged inside the mirrors, with his replica taking his place in the real world outside. Andy is stuck in infinity in the maze of mirrors like a visual vibrato; he is a reflection now. A sense of claustrophobia takes over the reader too. One half-expects eerie background music or pin-drop silence as in a horror film. And therein lies the tale!

Bordering on the eerie and surreal, Carnivalesque narrates the baffling story of Andy, who is now Dany, after he is pulled out from the mirror by Mona — the trapeze artiste in the carnival. His reflection has gone home with his parents as Andy, and Dany now has nowhere to go. He stays on in the carnival, with Mona adopting him as one of their own. As it turns out later, he is one of them. He is a carnie indeed!  Mona is one of the keepers of memories of carnie-dom, recollections that stretch back to the Land of Spices where the original carnival denizens came from. She introduces Dany to other carnies that include Virginie, the tightrope walker — who could “balance many things; she could balance decades in her posture and continents in her soul” — who is a self-adopted aunt to Dany, much like Mona is a mother to him.

The stunt riders, roustabouts and the strong men inhabit the carnival in a nonlinear time space. They look young even though they have lived for time immemorial, since “carnies experienced time in a radically different way” and live in perennial adolescence. Their age is revealed only when Fatigue (death) overtakes them and layers of age are peeled off them. They straddle two parallel dimensions: centuries past as well as the present, their existence divided between BH and AH (Before Hunger and After Hunger, referring to the Irish Famine). They lead suspended lives in a carnie universe, so to say! Laws of gravity do not exist for them, as Dany discovers when he becomes a hauler for Mona’s trapeze acts. He realises that the rope is not to keep her safe in the air but to tether her to land. And he later on discovers his own innate weightlessness when he can soar above everything instinctively. No one reveals the mysteries of this alternate universe to the lad; they talk evasively. And the answers, if any, are open to interpretation through folklore and fables.

While Dany is growing into a man in carnie life with occasional pangs and nostalgia for his family, his doppelgänger goes about as Andy and lives in his home. His mother recognises some strangeness in her son but puts it down to adolescence. She is quite uneasy when strange events occur when the new Andy is in the vicinity. The tale takes a turn for the surreal and horror when the ‘thing’ Dewman that is Andy’s father and yet not his father makes an appearance. The otherworldliness that was pleasant enough with just the right amount of fantasy till now, turns gruesome and the story feels like a horror film being played on the book-screen near you.

Neil Jordan infuses the story with a sadness, a pervading melancholy and a sense of loss that are in keeping with the tale. However, even though the book starts out promisingly, it starts meandering later on, necessitating re-reading of earlier chapters to comprehend the goings-on. The characters, at times, do not seem fleshed-out enough to raise sufficient empathy within the reader. The amalgam of mythology, history and real persons (Charlie Chaplin and his insatiable need to bed young women; Anish Kapoor and his sculptures) is expressed in a visual vocabulary that makes the book seem like a film unspooling through words.

The cinematic sensibility of the book is not surprising since Neil Jordan is a filmmaker of repute, donning varied hats as director, writer, screenplay writer and producer.

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