I’d not heard of Afonso Cruz before Kokoschka’s Doll popped through my letterbox, probably because it’s the first of his novels in translation to be published by a relatively mainstream publisher. He turns out to be a prolific and versatile writer, much acclaimed in his native Portugal. Taking its name from the artist so distraught at the loss of his lover that he commissioned a life-size puppet of her, Cruz’s novel is a wonderfully inventive slice of storytelling, almost impossible to write about but I’m going to try my best.
Wars struggle to exist when people understand each other
Orphaned by the firebombs dropped on Dresden, Isaac Dresner is out playing when a German soldier shoots his best friend whose head lands on his right foot. Isaac escapes, hiding in the cellar his father built for a bird shop’s owner who soon begins to hear a voice which appears to be emanating from his shop’s floorboards. Being a simple soul, Boniface does what the voice tells him to do, leaving food and sweets where requested and taking heed of its advice. At the end of the war, these two finally meet. It’s as if they’re father and son but it’s Isaac who takes Boniface under his wing. When a woman arrives in a tattered green dress, they take her in, Isaac claiming her as his sister to all who need to know but later marrying her. Isaac puts his toe in the literary world, setting up the tiniest of bookshops plus a small publisher, eventually attracting the attention of Mathias Popa who has a story to tell about a celebrated Dresden family before he dies. Intrigued by what he reads, Isaac decides to publish Popa’s work under the title Kokoschka’s Doll. Years later, a young woman tracks Isaac down, determined to find her dying grandmother’s beloved with whom she conceived a child before he disappeared.
Lies do not exist in literature, in fiction. What’s more, truth does not exist in real life
Sounds simple, doesn’t it, but that synopsis is lamentably insufficient for this complicated, captivating novel stuffed full of intersecting stories, some of which appear irrelevant until their apparently loose threads are stitched in. Unreliable narrators abound, stories are spun within stories all woven through with sharp observations about the human condition. Popa’s novella, takes up about a third of Cruz’s book offering the most straightforward piece of narrative although you’ll still have to keep your wits about you. It’s a fabulously playful piece of writing – I suspect Cruz enjoys disorientating his readers. In truth, I need to go back and read it again then possibly a third time to fully appreciate everything Cruz has to say. Witty, inventive and at times downright discombobulating, this is a novel you’ll either love or hate. As a guide, I’d say if you enjoy Nicola Barker’s writing this one should work for you. Kudos to Rahul Bery for what must have been a particularly challenging piece of translation.
MacLehose Press: London 9781529402698 288 pages Paperback