Tomorrow's Books


James Hamilton-Paterson

     James, a British writer living in Italy, is cornered while shopping for fizzy wine by a fellow expatriate with an unusual request: he wants his biography written.  After visiting the man’s villa, which features a signed photograph of Henry Kissinger and a silver trinket modelled on an unusual part of Disraeli’s anatomy, James is so intrigued that he agrees.
     What follows is a complex investigation not only of a life, but of the nature of biography itself.  James’s subject, Jayjay Jebb, promises to be open about his past – but since he describes himself as a professional impostor, can anything he says be believed?  Although Jayjay cheerfully confesses to an ultra-seedy past as a pre-war pornographer in the Middle East, James becomes convinced that he is hiding something of much greater significance.
     Jayjay is not the only ‘monster’ in the frame: James is simultaneously writing another book about dictators.  As he travels the world interviewing charming thugs who live surrounded by butlers and grand pianos, he begins to wonder whether some people do manage to escape the past.  The collective amnesia of his neighbours about Italy’s role in the War shows how reputations, as well as money, can be laundered.
     Hamilton-Paterson has a gift for describing places, and evokes Twenties London, wartime Alexandria and modern Tuscany with equal skill.  There are also some good jokes – particularly the way in which Jayjay finds the sleazy Egyptian underworld an excellent preparation for life back home as a merchant banker.
     This is, though, a book which is easier to admire than to like.  It has only one truly sympathetic character, and some very sordid sex, and the games played on the reader soon become irritating.  (Is this a novel or an actual biography?  Could that be a real photograph of Jayjay’s tombstone?)
     There are so many false trails that Loving Monsters comes close to being the most erudite shaggy-dog story ever told.  But in the end Hamilton-Paterson manages, unexpectedly and movingly, to pull the whole thing together, and to offer a rare insight into how love can make sense of even the most sordid lives.