‘If you like your books weird and challenging and philosophical’ – The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey

tskacThis was a word-of-mouth find for us: a small press, a rather bizarre cover (a Diego Rivera dude looking ultra-sinister), and an even odder blurb (the words ‘shocking truth’ set off all my alarm bells; I start thinking Flowers In The Attic meets David Icke, penned by Dan Brown and accompanied by a crescendo of soap opera muzak). However! Respectable internet-types were flagging it up, and it turns out that Crumey’s pedigree includes a Saltire Prize amongst other honours. Shame on us for almost passing him by. Hence: one copy of The Secret Knowledge ordered pronto.

Due warning: it is an odd book, it revolves around a (sort of) conspiracy theory, and it’s spectacularly hard to adequately summarise without wholly ruining the fun, but let’s say one strand involves Pierre Klauer, an early twentieth century composer who’s gotten mixed up with a bad philosophical crowd, and the other, present-day, half is about a music teacher, David, and his student, Paige, who’ve happened upon a lost score by Klauer himself. Is David delusional? Was Pierre’s fiancée paranoid? Is Paige on the brink of superstardom, or is she being used—and by whom? And what’s Theodor Adorno got to do with it all? Yeah. That’s what got my attention, too. A trio of real-life philosophers pop up halfway through: Adorno himself, Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin—the latter of whom, in the book, encounters Klauer, and the former (both of them) then battle over the legacy of some papers passed from the composer into Benjamin’s hands. After Benjamin’s death, Arendt wants Adorno to publish Benjamin’s writings inspired by Klauer, but Teddie is hesitant to comply. Klauer’s also tied up with actual French revolutionary, Louis Auguste Blangui, and a fictional dodgy secret society called the Rosier Corporation, which also figures in two of Crumey’s earlier books, though since I haven’t (yet) read them, I can’t really say if the prior knowledge would have helped. So it’s all pretty complicated.

As a read, it creeps up on you. What at first seems like a very straightforward historical puzzle, paralleled with a contemporary campus story of thwarted ambition and probable exploitation, becomes a shape-shifting, bewildering beast of a book. The philosophical triumvirate that dominate the second half probably at least partially account for Crumey’s current home at Dedalus (he was previously at Picador): not only is the narrative complicated (did I mention it’s all about parallel worlds?) but it’s also got jokes in there about the categorical imperative. That might be up my street, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the more risk-averse of the publishing houses baulked. Not that they ought to have, of course: it’s a clever book, and funny, and thought-provoking; it mixes a whodunnit with the intellectual japes of Umberto Eco, and (not surprisingly for Crumey, who’s a highly trained physicist) a bunch of quantum references. It’s the sort of book that has you constantly flipping back through the chapters to check connections and coincidences; that makes you nod furiously once you figure something out. And, by the end, you want to start over again as fast as possible to see if you’ve properly understood it…

On a pedantic level, I wasn’t overly keen on Crumey’s run-on sentences, but, in the greater scheme of things, that’s not much of a flaw. And it’s not a hard read, stylistically-speaking; in fact, for a book that’s thematically complex, the prose is refreshingly and deceptively easy to handle. I’ve gone, in a matter of days, from not having heard of Crumey, to cueing up his back catalogue for imminent perusal. I find conspiracy theories (and novels thereon) almost infinitely tedious, but here’s an exception. It hasn’t got a convenient ending, or an easy solution: it’s pretty complicated, more than a little frustrating, and massively compelling. While it’s not perfect, it’s snagged my interest to the extent that three books later, I’m still groping after it. And so far it seems to have been roundly ignored by the mainstream media. Boo, we say, here at Bookmunch, but perhaps, we, at least, have gone some way towards redressing that lack, eh?

Any Cop? A resounding yes, if you like your books weird and challenging and philosophical.




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