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Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Caesarion" by Tommy Wieringa (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"At the end of the Alburgh pier, where the Belle Steamers full of London holidaymakers once tied up, two fishermen were leaning over the balustrade. They each had two lines in the water. Below them the leaden gray waves washed around the pilings; the sea was cold as a corpse.

From here you could clearly see Warren Feldman’s titanic accomplishment, and how those efforts had already been almost obliterated by the sea. Over a length of about one kilometer he’d thrown up a wall of turf, earth and clay – the wall was four meters high and stood out darkly against the yellow sand of the much higher cliff against which it leaned at Kings Ness. A primitive bulwark against erosion. Since time began the land here had been eaten away by the sea, during storms, when the North Sea threw its clenched fury at the cliffs of eastern England. Far away, at the extreme northern end of Kings Ness, stood the home of John and Emma Ambrose. All the house needed was a wee push to be drawn into the abyss.

My mother and I had known the falling feeling that went with living on the edge. The inhabitants of the medieval town of Castrum had known it too, the water had driven them further west all the time. Now the sea flows where the city once lay, Castrum no longer exists, her name sounds like Atlantis. She was lost to the North Sea, which gobbled her up storm after storm, bite by bite. The western edge of the vanished town had snuggled all the way to Kings Ness. You could say that we, the people of Kings Ness, are the final inhabitants of Castrum, the last of the Atlanteans. Our house too, on that night long ago, became a part of the ruinous street plan of Castrum which stretches some three miles eastward out onto the seabed, and is visited only by divers and sea creatures."

"Caesarion" is a compelling novel that promises -and mostly delivers - a lot though it loses some coherence in the last third. The book has a very strong start when narrator Ludwig Unger, now in his early 30's and a hotel piano player who drifts through life, returns to his childhood home in Britain for the funeral of Warren, the man who had sold a house from his large estate to his mother and later helped and befriended them because said house was on the cliffs and was continually threatened by storms, while Warren's big projects to keep the land from submerging in the sea were thwarted by this and that bureaucracy.

Getting a gig at the local bar/restaurant run by one his school friends, Ludwig has an affair with a realtor visiting the place and tells her the story of his life from the dramatic move from Alexandria when he was little and his sculptor father had recently left his mother, to the school years in Britain, the revelation that his mother used to be a famous porn star in her late teens and then later after the house is taken by the sea, his mother's return to the porn trade and Ludwig's following her from Hollywood to many other places and trying to come to terms with her choice of profession, his acceptance of the glamorous lifestyle resulting from it and his need to accompany her...
As mentioned, the first 2/3 or so  of the novel is very strong in both character development and storyline as it has quite a few surprises and strong narrative momentum balanced by coherence, but the last part which goes through quite a few years, locations and a bunch of Ludwig's affairs - all inevitably with older rich women for obvious reasons - and includes our hero's quest to understand his father too, feels rushed though it has its powerful moments too. It may also be that the shifting in tone from hopeful and exuberant to tragedy and resigned acceptance contributes to that feeling, but overall I felt a clear lack of balance between the parts.

Overall "Caesarion" is literary high grade stuff that stops a little short from being a masterpiece to remember for a long time like say this recent translation, while it still left me interested in reading more from the author.


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