The House of Journalists
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £16.99
If you want to create an atmosphere of paranoia, there’s nothing like using a firstperson- plural narrator, a mysterious “we” whose identity is never quite revealed. Haruki Murakami does this in After Dark with a conjoined chorus of narrators who seem to be surveillance cameras. The technique is also used in Joshua Ferris’s magnificent Then We Came to the End, in which the uncertainty of who exactly is speaking contributes to a febrile mood of fear and speculation in the story of an advertising agency struggling to survive a recession.
In his ambitious debut novel, a black-hued satire about asylum-seekers, Tim Finch goes a step further. Not only is his narrator an unidentified “we”; the subject of their address is “you”. Though it quickly becomes clear whom this “you” refers to, the interrogative tone heightens the reader’s sense of suspicion and mistrust.
The House of Journalists is a refuge for persecuted writers established in a venerable old building in London. Its inhabitants are a shifting cast of exceptional asylum-seekers whose writing has brought them up against a variety of oppressive regimes.
Take Mr Stan, a newspaper editor from an island that was formerly under colonial rule. Mr Stan was an outspoken voice in favour of independence, but when he criticised the dictatorship that followed on the heels of British government he was arrested and subjected to a baroquely horrible punishment. His hands, the only perfect part of his disabled body, were smashed with hammers, leaving him with “repellent flesh clubs, studded with half-fossilised fingers and thumbs, nails and knuckles”.
Mr Stan is the longest-serving fellow of the House of Journalists and a rare permanent inhabitant. Most of its guests are passing through, finding their feet before moving on to a life of more or less successful exile. But is the House as benevolent as it seems? And who is the mysterious AA, the new fellow, whom the narrators keep addressing with that threatening, accusing “you”?
Both questions hinge on the House’s founder, Julian Snowman. Finch has fun with Snowman, a marvel of pomposity and paranoia who runs the refuge with absolute rigidity, despite his superficial charm. His main imperative is to safeguard the House’s long-term future by convincing benefactors and politicians of its importance. If this requires coercing vulnerable residents into spilling stories of torture and trauma, so be it.
A particular thorn in Snowman’s side is the Nobel Prizewinner Ted Crumb, modelled affectionately on Harold Pinter. Crumb made his reputation by way of plays composed of elegant silences. Since the Iraq war, he has suddenly become garrulous and foulmouthed, engorged with fury at his nation’s hypocrisy and violence.
Hypocrisy and violence are also Finch’s targets. He describes acutely the kinds of characters drawn to the House: the wellmeaning, the patronising and the actively exploitative, among whom Vanessa Boothby is a particularly repellent example.
Boothby is a writing mentor attempting to sell a radio play based on the experiences of her charge. “True,” she thinks to herself, “it is Edson’s story, pretty much in every detail, and using a lot of his words and turns of phrase, but it is a mistake, a profound mistake, to underestimate the skill it takes to fashion this raw material, to give it some shape and bend it into a narrative arc.”
This concern with stories and how they are shaped underpins Finch’s more playful forays. All of the refugees are under pressure to create a coherent narrative of suffering. They have been stripped of passports and even names, so a good story is their most valuable possession. (The brief section in which an immigration tribunal pleasantly explains its decision-making process is particularly sinister.) Yet stories can be tweaked and pruned and those capable of carrying out this work are by no means always innocent.
Adom is a case in point. A former headmaster, his account of a massacre at his school doesn’t quite conceal his culpability. On the other hand, the gentle Mustapha seems incapable of concocting the kind of narrative the tribunal needs, though he has been broken by his time in prison, waiting for torture that was agonisingly and perpetually delayed.
The political satire is deft enough but it is this darker material that lingers in the imagination. Finch’s greatest achievement has to do with scale. During one testimony, a poet called Sonny describes her painful, dangerous journey to Gibraltar, where she confronted the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Each had been subjected to oppression; each was in possession of a heartbreaking story. You might feel compassion for one refugee – but what’s to be done with so many, “an unmoving mass, waiting in line for a miracle that would never happen”?
Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink” (Canongate, £20)