The novelist and the Jewish pugilist

Ned Beauman on foxes, beetles and boxers.

At my cousin's wedding there was a lot of cake, a considerable amount of expressive dancing and some botched Hebrew from the rabbi. As raucous disco classics overtook the traditional klezmer beats, I learnt about Daniel Mendoza, an ancestor of my now cousin-in-law, from a solemn young man who -- once he was no longer eating mozzarella in a gazebo -- became something of a whirling dervish on that memorable Essex dancefloor. Daniel Mendoza was an 18th-century Jewish boxing champion. He reigned supreme in the ring until one opportunistic opponent -- "Gentleman" Jack Johnson -- grabbed his sidelocks and pummelled him into submission. Henceforth, boxers have had short hair. According to Wikipedia, Mendoza was "intelligent, charismatic but chaotic" and the first Jew to talk to King George III. He died in 1836, at the age of 72, leaving his family in poverty. (Since my cousin's wedding, a new Daniel Mendoza has been added to the clan; currently 14 months old and the proud owner of a T-shirt with a squid on it. Perhaps he will grow up to be a boxer -- but probably not).

This is why the phrase "Jewish boxing champion" caught my attention when I first heard of Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle. Among other things, Boxer, Beetle tells the story of a nine-toed gay Jewish pugilist called Seth "Sinner" Roach and a repressed beetle-fixated eugenicist whose interest in Roach is both scientific and sexual. The backdrop is 1930s London. In the present day, the tale of these two characters is linked to a Nazi memorabilia collector, Kevin Broom, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare condition that makes him smell of rotting fish: "Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases." Consequently, Kevin spends much of his time trawling Third Reich-related internet forums (and in a brief self-reflexive flourish, "nbeauman" appears in an online chat).

Both past and contemporary fictional worlds are conjured with a kind of Dickensian vividness and relish for the grotesque. There are characters called Horace Grublock and Leonard Bruisleand. The latter's effeminate son appears as "two unctuous costly pale limp shiny things, one of which was a silk dressing gown that contained the other". Noir influences are also at work -- the novel contains murder, a (Welsh) hitman and a quest for truth undertaken by Kevin. In the 1930s sections, the narrator's use of startling metaphor evokes the spirit of Chandler, as when a boxer "crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation".

Beauman's invocation of other authors is a combination of tribute and irreverence. The country-house scenes in which assorted fascists assemble bring to mind Ishiguro, Waugh and McEwan. Here, Atonement's Briony Tallis is re-imagined in the form of the precocious Millicent Bruiseland, a freckled 12-year-old who appears at opportune moments to make explicit sexual accusations about the adults: "Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!"

Far from being derivative, Boxer, Beetle has an expansive range that merges the outlandish and esoteric into a narrative propelled by wit and inventiveness. Here is a passage that illustrates this:

Gittins was a fat otter-faced bureaucrat in his fifties who for nearly twenty years had carried around a glass vial containing a small colony of cimicids -- bedbugs -- which every night he tipped out on to his hairy thigh so that they could feed on his blood as part of some obscure long-running experiment into mandible size versus nutritional preferences.

Beauman is now working on his next novel, The Teleportation Accident, and promises that another forthcoming work will feature urban foxes in a major way. A fascination with foxes is apparent in one particular episode in Boxer, Beetle, which becomes a rare moment of aesthetic wonder : "Mangy and thin, it had sinews like twisted telephone wires, a stink like a petrol station forecourt, and a coat the colour of a traffic cone left in a skip full of rainwater. It was -- if I'm not making myself clear -- impossibly beautiful. For perhaps a full minute, the animal stared at me with a strange scepticism and a boy's eyes." Personally speaking, as a fox enthusiast, this is possibly the best piece of fox-themed writing since Ted Hughes set pen to paper. Or Roald Dahl. A loftier encomium cannot be given.

"Boxer, Beetle" is now available in paperback from Sceptre (£7.99)

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis