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8 March 2016

The strange work of French pulp writer Serge Brussolo is finally available in English

The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is the first of Brussolo's novels to be translated – and, happily, it's also one of the best.

By Tim Martin

The improbably prolific Serge Brussolo is the author of well over 150 books in his ­native France, in genres including science fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy, war, police procedural, historical drama and young adult fiction. He has written weird tales influenced by J G Ballard, books set in ancient Egypt, in Viking Europe and during the Hundred Years War, techno-thrillers à la Michael Crichton, werewolf novels (under the pseudonym Akira Suzuko), medieval interstellar adventures (as Kitty Doom) and a series of bestsellers about an American teenager with magic ghost-o-vision glasses, Peggy Sue et les fantômes. Brussolo publishes up to three books a year, a rate at which even a team of writers working overtime might be hard-pressed to maintain stylistic consistency, and this, coupled with his unapologetic recycling of plots and ideas, goes some way towards explaining why his literary reputation hovers between guilty pleasure and national treasure. Even so, one might expect to have had a sniff of his work in English before now. Mais non.

That is about to change with The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome, the first of Brussolo’s novels to be translated into English and, happily, also one of the best. The premise will be distantly familiar to readers who have seen Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (released in 2010), though the book appeared in France 18 years earlier, as Le syndrome du scaphandrier: its protagonist, David, leads a gang of metaphysical burglars who enter a dreaming mind and pull daring heists to retrieve its treasures.

In the wonderful opening pages, David and his two sidekicks leap out of a long, black car that keeps obstinately trying to turn into a shark, and on to a pavement that desperately wants to become a beach (“Fix your stability,” one character warns, “take a consistency pill”), and use a jeweller’s eyeball and severed hand to gain entry to his shop. Their quarry is a huge black safe – “No matter the shop, the safe was always the same” – which belches, gives out “intestinal gurgles” and the thuds of a beating heart, and recites random numbers and mocking slogans as the cracksman sets about his work.

Once opened, it reveals crunching bagfuls of loose stones (“He came across bags like that in every heist. The psychologist said it was negative thinking”), which the protagonist seizes as his dream begins to disintegrate and he is sucked helplessly towards the surface. As first chapters go, it takes some beating.

But Brussolo’s novel is even stranger than these opening fireworks suggest. Unlike the dream-agents of Inception, who fish for industrial secrets in the minds of their drugged subjects, David is a sole trader and the brain he plumbs is his own. Objects brought back from a dream are mysteriously converted upon waking into flesh-like sculptures, “palpitating faintly like frightened animals” until someone comes and takes them away: they are, we soon discover, the new artworks of a world in which Picassos and Klees have become the province of rag-and-bone men (“Paint applied to a canvas with a stick topped by animal hair? How crude!”) and where collectors scramble for “ectoplasmic curios” manifested by dreaming prospectors.

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The overheated pulp heists in which David specialises, as his psychiatrist observes crossly, are just “a magic formula that allows you to concentrate”; another dream-diver spends his nights on endless safari, where he is the great white hunter Majo-Mako, “He-Who-Slew-Like-Lightning”. In most cases, indulging in too much of this kind of introspection ends badly: although the public loves dreamers’ work, they often slump into endless comas, poison their inscapes with tranquillisers, or die of porcelain brain tumours in which the pathologists discover “tiny, exquisitely chiselled figurines”.

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It doesn’t take a very alert reader to spot the metaphorical dimension in all this, but the anarchic surrealism at work in Brussolo’s novel is such that it can never quite be reduced to a parable about the artist and society. Like Burroughs in his cut-up fictions, or Ballard in the mad Californian dreamscapes of his Vermilion Sands stories, he is coolly at home in the deranged landscape he creates, in which hypnotists whisper cryptically to security cameras, dead dreams lie frozen in special vaults lest they explode when they thaw and flowers sprout wildly in cityscapes of the mind as the dreamers’ bodies decay.

His book is sometimes silly (there is some awkward dialogue, the odd dramatic longueur and altogether too much banging on about “ectoplasm” for my taste) but it is also totally, unapologetically compelling. What an introduction, then. And there’s plenty more to come.

The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo, translated by Edward Gauvin, is published by Melville House (220pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis