This book is translated from Dutch. This is not obvious: it is better translated than, say Sven Hassel. Sometimes I stopped and asked myself whether a passage might have been better worded, but to be honest I have read less well-written books written in English.
My copy is hard-back. Some 240 pages for £16.99 struck me as not cheap, but ultimately the story is good. It might have been written as a short story, but that would have defeated the object of the story itself.
The story opens with two security guards in the cellar car park of a 40-storey block of luxury flats. Michel (who tells the story) and Harry are awaiting a replen by the organisation that employs them to guard the only entrance to the flats via the car park and to protect the residents, who pay a lot of money for the privilege. What is going on in the outside world is never made clear to the reader, but there are whispers of radioactive fallout, chemical and biological weapons, crop failure, revolution, you name it. Harry and Michel don’t know.
They don’t talk to the residents, they salute them as they drive in and out (in the circumstances, not all that often). They rely on the organisation, with whom they have contact only only on monthly replen days, through the replen driver, who is never around long enough to pass on anything meaningful. Harry is clearly the senior guard, whom Michel respects, but they are a team and their drills are slickly professional, down to a daily count of the boxes of 9mm Parabellum rounds for their issued pistols. As time goes by, the replen becomes the focus of their very being, since they are usually down to the tinned pilchards (my words, not the author’s: think 4-man ration packs) by the time it turns up. They only have a two years old calendar to tick off the days, if they can remember to do so in the permanent twilight of the car park. Washing their uniforms and keeping them smart is not easy in the hand wash basin. Shaving and haircuts with a less-than-sharp knife are an infrequent necessity. They spend their time patrolling their cellar, imagining the day when the organisation recognises their professionalism in carrying out their duties in a role that ought to be performed by three guards, and they get promoted to the organisation’s elite ranks and a cushy posting to a rural mansion. As months go by, the replens get fewer and poorer in quality, quantity and frequency.
Then a third guard is delivered. This guard is never named, but Harry’s racism (the third guard is black) quickly comes to the surface. And one day, all but one of the residents and their staff leave (we never learn where to). Harry makes a point of counting them all out.
There is a twist at the end of the book. I have to say I had the main gist of the twist (but by no means all of it) by about halfway through the book, but to be honest, it made me read all the quicker. No spoiler here.
As I have implied, the author does a good job of writing a short story in a long style. There is not much of a story: anyone who has ever stagged on at the gate for 24 hours will know how little happens and what goes on in his head while he is bored out of his skull. This is ably told without the book itself becoming the drudge that the story tells.
The book will probably sell better when it comes out in paperback (or as an e-book) and I think it could do well with readers on a boring railway commute or in a sandpit in a far-off foreign land.
The internet suggests that the author has written a number of books (in Dutch, but one or two have been translated, The Guard into a good number of languages). I might just be keeping an eye out for his later works. As he develops his art (he is only in his 40s), if he can develop a theme for a full-length novel, I believe he could come in for some serious acclaim and shall keep an eye out. Maybe something for the Kindle (other e-readers are available).
Mushroomheads? Easily three and a half.
The Guard by Peter Terrin, trans David Colmer published by Maclehose Press
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