By Adam Biles.
Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, Simon Okotie, Salt, 2012
Simon Okotie’s debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is blurbed by its publisher Salt as a “detective story set on a Routemaster bus”, a witheringly twee turn of phrase that does well in evoking the plummy joviality of, say, Alexander McCall Smith, but tells us little about Okotie’s book. In fact, Absalon is about as much of a detective story as is Beckett’s Molloy (of which more later). Perhaps the most effective apology for the description, though, is the near impossibility of doing this book justice in threefer-friendly blurbese. For credit must go to Salt, and specifically Nicolas Royle, for bringing Absalon into print. Absalon is a genuine oddity of a book, that not only does everything a debut novel is not supposed to do in these days of market-driven homogenisation, but seems to set out to do this almost as a point of principle.
Marguerite, our detective, our hero, and our only way into the world Okotie conjures up, is pursuing Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s (missing) transport advisor, around a city that resembles London but which is never actually named as such. The action of the book — and here the reviewer’s vocabulary falls down somewhat — consists of only a handful of movements: he cases a hotel lobby, he takes an elevator, he follows a woman, he boards a bus… But all that is of only secondary importance. What we’re treated to over two hundred pages is Marguerite’s mind-time, as every reflection is pursued, expanded upon, and allowed to loop back on itself until it collapses in a state of near-exhaustion…at which point, onto the next! Digression for comic effect is nothing new, but what sets Okotie apart is not only his ability (and his discipline) to sustain this form over the length of an entire novel, but also the realisation that “comedy” is more of a happy side-effect than Okotie’s main goal.
Marguerite’s almost endless digressions bring two classic works of literature to mind. The first, inevitably, is Tristram Shandy — who manages to not even be born until the third volume of his life-story. The second (as mentioned already) is Beckett’s Molloy, specifically the sucking-stones sequence, in which — over a mere four pages or so, peanuts to Okotie! — the reader discovers all of Molloy’s different pocket combinations for keeping track of which pebbles have been sucked and which haven’t, before all but one of the pebbles are discarded anyway. Despite the comparisons, however, Beckett’s absurd tragicomedy is not Okotie’s. Neither is Sterne’s skewering of solemnity. Instead, in its attempt to plunge the reader into the endless river of thoughts and reflections that constitute a human being — albeit one of particularly inquisitive bent — Absalon’s ambition is apparently to be an illustration of how the self can be dissolved, or perhaps transcended, in this mental flow. In this way it might be set alongside two other (relatively) recent debuts: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Lee Rourke’s The Canal.
There is a danger that Okotie will not reach the readers he deserves, and that those who do pick up the book, attracted magpie-ishly by its McCall-Smithesque blurb and brightly coloured cover, will be left feeling baffled and annoyed. There will be others, however, who will see the ambition, originality, thoughtfulness and, crucially, the humanity in Simon Okotie’s writing, and in Absalon the making of a modern classic. Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? might not be for everyone…but who wants to read a book that’s for everyone, anyway?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Adam Biles, is a writer, translator and journalist based in Paris. His novel Grey Cats was runner-up in the Paris Literary Prize and is out now in paperback and ebook from 3:AM Press. The Deep/Les Abysses was published by Editions de la Houle.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 25th, 2013.