Bril­liance in search of an au­thor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nigel Krauth

TORSTEN Krol’s new novel has al­ready ex­cited re­view­ers in Bri­tain and a dozen Euro­pean coun­tries. Cal­listo is de­scribed as ‘‘ satir­i­cal and ter­ri­fy­ing’’, ‘‘ hec­tic, highly en­ter­tain­ing’’, ‘‘ bizarre, thought- pro­vok­ing and funny’’, ‘‘ bril­liantly suc­cinct, dry and sub­tly hi­lar­i­ous’’. The praise goes on. Clearly this new Aus­tralian writer has tal­ent.

The novel caus­ing the sen­sa­tion is set in Cal­listo, a town in north­east Kansas, some­where very close to the ge­o­graph­i­cal cen­tre of the US.

Morally and po­lit­i­cally too, the novel is set deep in the heart of Amer­ica. Its nar­ra­tor, Odell Dee­fus, is one of those For­rest Gump- type hicks whose in­no­cence draws out the worst mis­treat­ment US cul­ture can de­liver. Odell is vul­ner­a­ble, and there­fore a vic­tim.

Odell is pos­si­bly the world’s un­luck­i­est man. In­of­fen­sively set­ting off to en­list in the US army — be­cause the pay is good in Iraq and he needs the money — Odell strikes car trou­ble on a lonely stretch of black­top, so he seeks help at a soli­tary road­side house. Un­for­tu­nately, by walk­ing up the drive­way to pro­fes­sional lawn- mower Dean Lowry’s place, Odell walks into a mael­strom of mur­der, ter­ror­ism, drug smug­gling, po­lice cor­rup­tion, po­lit­i­cal skul­dug­gery, re­li­gious fa­nati­cism, mil­i­tary tor­ture and more.

The en­joy­ment of this novel lies in the reader not know­ing what’s com­ing next. How­ever, it’s not giv­ing away too much to men­tion some of the stock items em­ployed in the plot: the corpse in the freezer among the TV din­ners, the gravesite where the body is re­buried sev­eral times, and all the crooked deal­ers who have walk- on or big­ger parts: the drug smug­glers, politi­cians, po­lice of­fi­cers, FBI agents, sol­diers and tel­e­van­ge­lists. Odell con­tin­u­ally out­smarts his ad­ver­saries, at the same time en­mesh­ing him­self ever more deeply in the cor­rupt sys­tem. Sid­ing with him, the reader too is quickly en­snared in the story’s web.

It is alarm­ing that we recog­nise all this ug­li­ness from the daily news and un­der­stand it read­ily. We iden­tify with Odell, with his need to lie, flee or suf­fer in the name of pro­tect­ing his in­no­cence. Odell’s plight is rem­i­nis­cent of that en­dured by Kafka’s Josef K. More than three­quar­ters of the way through his nar­ra­tion, Odell sees him­self — as he did at the start — ‘‘ swept up in Some­thing Big that I still don’t un­der­stand how big it re­ally is’’. The fact that so many re­views of the novel so far have used terms such as ‘‘ hi­lar­i­ous’’ or ‘‘ black com­edy’’ to de­scribe the work is par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing, be­cause the rea­sons for laugh­ing at this story are the same rea­sons for ner­vously laugh­ing at the idea that

the CIA staged 9/ 11. Such con­spir­acy the­o­ries re­main laugh­able un­less they are ex­posed as fact.

The iden­ti­ties of those be­hind the forces that suck up, crunch on and ul­ti­mately spit Odell out are not the only mys­ter­ies at­tached to this book. The work is a com­pre­hen­sive who­dunit be­cause we don’t know who the au­thor is.

Torsten Krol, it ap­pears, is a new writer liv­ing reclu­sively in Queens­land. It is re­ported he ( or she) has a New Zealand agent, who is say­ing noth­ing, while the book’s pub­lish­ers claim not to know the au­thor’s iden­tity.

Fol­low­ing the re­lease last year of his first novel, The Dol­phin Peo­ple, there was a sense that the writer was young, clever, male, with a pen­chant for the bizarre and night­mar­ish. The re­lease of Cal­listo adds an­other layer of spec­u­la­tion.

This doesn’t feel like the sec­ond work of a start­ing writer. There’s re­mark­able sure­ness in the plot struc­ture and han­dling of sus­pense. Vis­ual de­scrip­tion through­out is su­perb, but es­pe­cially in the height­ened mo­ments of the ex­plo­sion, the tor­ture, and the fall from the aero­plane, where the lan­guage is so rich and pre­cise the world seems to have de­cel­er­ated into slow mo­tion. Surely this intelligence and ma­tu­rity isn’t the writ­ing of a new­comer; more likely the work of, say, a David Malouf moon­light­ing.

There seem to be few other clues. The only name that emerges as an ana­gram of Torsten Krol is ‘‘ Er­rol S. Knott’’. Not well known. How­ever, an­other ana­gram is ‘‘ trot snorkel’’. Per­haps that’s what Krol does at the beach be­side his Queens­land hideaway. And while Torsten means Thurs­day ( Dan­ish, Swedish) and torso ( Ger­man), the one lan­guage where the full name could de­note some­thing is Dutch: torsten krol might be stretched to mean ‘‘ bear­ing the shrill noise of a cat on heat’’. A joke, clearly, be­cause this novel is far from cat­er­waul­ing.

Odell Dee­fus never finds out who was or­ches­trat­ing his fate, and by im­pli­ca­tion who ul­ti­mately runs the US. Sim­i­larly we do not know who is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for this novel. ‘‘ I don’t know any­thing, and I didn’t do any­thing,’’ Odell reg­u­larly com­plains. ‘‘ You’re in the clear. None of this ever hap­pened,’’ the voice at the un­trace­able end of the phone fi­nally says.

Nigel Krauth is a writer who lives in Queens­land.

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