Tomorrow's Books
 

UNCLE RUDOLF

Paul Bailey

    Reading Paul Bailey’s superb new novel is like biting into a ripe fig and finding a shard of glass in the middle.  The shock is real, but the fruit is so delicious that at first you barely taste the blood.
     The shock takes the form of two secrets – one held by the narrator, Andrei, and the other kept from him.  Andrew, as he is renamed on his arrival in London in 1937, is a child refugee from Romania, where his partly Jewish family is being persecuted.  Promising that they will soon be reunited, his father sends him to stay with Uncle Rudolf, a lyric tenor who has found fame in England as the star of operettas such as The Gypsy Prince and Magyar Maytime.
     Uncle Rudolf cocoons his young nephew in affection, culture and the trappings of wealth.  In his dreams, however, Andrew returns to his homeland, seeking the parents who have never come to reclaim him.  By the time he discovers the truth about their fate, he is set on a potentially disastrous path of his own.
     Paul Bailey not only writes with beautiful simplicity, but is also a master of structure.  He hovers over his story like a mayfly, darting backwards and forwards within a complex chronology, and revealing his plot in tantalising fragments.  When we finally discover Andrew’s secret, the story moves on so quickly that we barely have time to consider its appalling implications.
     Uncle Rudolf himself is a marvellous creation, as full of bravado as the gypsies and pirates he impersonates, but weighed down by a growing sense that he has squandered his talents.  The light works that have made him famous are not only a poor substitute for grand opera, but are – to his mind – symptomatic of the fascist culture that destroyed his family.  His melancholy, like the shadow it casts on those around him, is tangible.
      But there is comedy, too, epitomised by the surrealist artist whose farcical funeral – conducted by a whisky-tippling priest – is his crowning masterpiece.  And above all there is a sense of love, obliterating the most unspeakable of deeds.

 

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