Aficionados of early nineteenth century literature will be aware of Charles Robert Maturin’s Gothic classic, Melmoth The Wanderer (1820), in which the hero trades his soul for an extra 150 years of life and is cursed then to walk the Earth for the duration of his extra time; well, here Sarah Perry has taken Maturin’s template, doused it in a Christianity inflected with folk horror, made Melmoth a woman – and a Witness rather than a Wanderer (though she does, in fact, wander, and wander for a lot longer than Maturin’s version) – and brought her to the streets of contemporary Prague. The novel is structured around a single main character – the self-effacing, nondescript Helen Franklin – whose attention is drawn to Melmoth when she’s given a sheaf of pages (‘primary sources’) detailing various individuals’ encounters with the Witness over several centuries. As Helen reads these testimonies, she becomes more and more convinced that Melmoth is watching her, has always been watching her, and is coming for her.
As a piece of neo-Gothic writing, it’s suitably unsettling. The spectre of Melmoth is a chilling one – the depthless loneliness of the woman cursed to walk the earth on bloody feet until the Second Coming; cursed because she denied witnessing the Resurrection. In recompense, then, Melmoth haunts those who have themselves witnessed (or committed) atrocities; she’s a literal incarnation of guilt as she waits for the moment when she’ll ask you to take her hand… There’s a real horror in Perry’s half-glimpsed watcher and the flicker of black tatters in the shadows; the reader will shudder and startle just as does Helen.
It’s also an enormously ambitious book: Perry’s not simply weaving together different narrative modes and styles as she constructs story within story within story, but she’s invoking a cumulative history of atrocities, from the persecution of the Lutherans, to the Holocaust, to the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, to Helen’s own story (for of course she’s got a dark secret) which is one of betrayal and cowardice and a wasted life. The questions she’s tackling aren’t inconsequential: she’s talking about bearing witness to wrong-doing, yes, but also the limits of responsibility, the role of the individual in the machinery of evil, the possibility of redemption, the possibility of free-will – and all in a little over two hundred pages. If The Essex Serpent created a myth, Melmoth is creating a framework for the major moral questions of our time.
And that’s where it falls short: the situations evoked here, the immensity of the tragedies and the human failings, the sheer scope of the horror – each of these situations could fill its own two hundred pages. The Jews killed and expelled from Prague, the Armenians posing as Turks, the lovers implicated in a murder – in each case, there’s no scope in these mini narratives-within-narratives to sufficiently explore their psychological, ethical and emotional nuances. Rather, we have postcards from the events – well-drawn ones, of course, but all too tantalising, all too brief. Moreover, the narrative mode it’s all wrapped in – the Gothic tale – serves to further diminish the individual resonances of the various case-studies: when the Holocaust tale is simply one tale amongst many, it underlines the awful banality of it all, as Perry (and Arendt, and Melmoth) intends, but it also makes the Holocaust subservient to a piece of entertainment – the Holocaust and other genocides as vehicles for Helen’s journey, for Melmoth’s march through time, as vectors for the terror the writer’s trying to evoke in the reader.
Any Cop?: Perry’s a fantastic stylist and she’s got a great sense of the creepy and the uncanny, but there’s too much going on here for it to entirely work. All the same, it’s a good read – just don’t read it if you’re feeling guilty…