Wednesday, 25 May 2022

The Master of Chaos

The Master of Chaos travels the world as a professional gambler. "Gambling, contrary to public perception, was for my grandfather a way of controlling his own destiny. The decisions were his and his alone. Gambling does not care about the past. No game depends or builds on the previous one. Losing is bad but there is always another opportunity, that fresh start, the optimist's clean sheet, the new dawn and undiscovered Eden." What a philosophy! Love it! The gambler's wife, by the way, is also quite a character who thinks all politicians should be put on an island, without water, food or electricity. Couldn't agree more ...

After the Master of Chaos keeled over in a bar in Peckham, his coffin was shipped to Guyana for the burial. "When the funeral was over she (his widow) instructed the undertaker to check the next day to make sure grave-robbers had not taken the body out and stolen the ornate coffin." I've never been to Guyana but my hunch is that this description gives me a pretty good idea of the place.

The cover story of this tome of fables is told by the fifteen-year-old grandson whose aunt is about to go see perform Antonio Velasquez but the widow tries to stop her. "Well I'm goin'. I ain' missing one of the few international events that ever comes to this country just because father choose to bury himself on the wrong day. " She eventually doesn't attend and opts instead to go gambling ...

A Nobel prize-winner is struggling to find a fitting suicide note; an involuntary advisor to a dictator ("It is a dictator's duty to get up in the morning and make sure he looks exactly the same as the day before."), who does not believe in superstition, makes a miraculous escape from Surinam; a guy locked up in a clinic is able to simulate the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic; a European bureaucrat in Moscow believes she might be instrumental "in turning that great ship of state, Mother Russia, in a new direction that would avoid corruption and embrace moderation and tolerance." – an array of pretty unusual characters that I thought hilarious.

In order to give you a clue, here is an example: "Egor had a chip on his shoulder about his name. He was convinced that his name was only suitable for a village idiot. A talented cartoonist, he made his life carving tombstones. The cemetery business was booming, with the new middle class favouring black marble headstones. Every day, Egar Dudnik resented having to inscribe names more impressive than his own."

From the Amerindian village of Pakuri where some of the the elders still speak Arawak, "a language that harked back to the days before Columbus" to the Syrian desert and a copy of "The Dream of Ocalan" to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary discussing their suicides – Pauline Melville's originality and wit are simply unique.

A scientist, returning to Buenos Aires after many years  ("Unwilling to pick up the threads of my former life I told no-one I was coming back."), discovers the appalling truth about boyhood acquaintances and is reminded of David Bowie's fascist phase, "the period when he said that Britain could do with a fascist leader." A visit to a prisoner on a Caribbean island that the Americans once branded a hot-bed of communism. A Jewish writer in Prague who, during the Nazi and the Soviet occupation, cannot get his stories published – Pauline Melville possesses a sharp eye for the absurdities of life, a seeming absence of illusions, and astute insights into human nature.

In short: Immensely funny, heartwarming, clever, and wonderfully instructive. A joy to read.

Pauline Melville
The Master of Chaos
and Other Fables
Sandstone Press, Muir of Ord, Scotland 2021

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