The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Winged With Death, by John Baker

John Baker is doing a virtual tour with this book, and today he's here with me. I've read the book, and can warmly recommend it. Like Peter Dorward's Nightingale, this is a literary crime novel literary novel that links the armed radicalism of the 1970s with a protagonist's complex situation in the present, to disturbing effect. In Baker's novel, the past is Montevideo, where urban guerillas confront a grim military dictatorship. The present is the disappearance of a teenage girl in York. The prose is colourful and precise, sometimes almost clipped, and the tensions wind to induce in the reader a state of mind analogous to that of the narrator and create a novel whose end you don't want to reach, but must.

[Update 5 April: Re 'literary crime novel' see comments - KMM]

If the tour is going according to plan, you can talk to the author today in the comments below. Meanwhile, here's a taster:

What follows is an extract from John Baker's latest novel, Winged with Death (Flambard Press £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-906601-02-7).

I dreamed about soldiers. My dreams often contain people in uniform. I have dreams about order, or so it seems when they begin. I was jerked awake at 4.30 in the morning. Must’ve been unconscious for nearly half-an-hour. Whatever had occupied my sleeping mind was already dissolving like Alka-Seltzer in a glass. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and pulled on my dressing gown. I had a piss and drank a glass of cold water and headed for the kitchen.

It takes a while to retrieve the dream. And even then I don’t get all the details, just a distilled essence. The narrative is lost and I’m left with the conclusions. It’s like a lesson, like being in school.

There were soldiers looking for glory and finding bloody stumps where they used to have arms and legs. This was what pulled me awake. The broken bodies of these young men, the quality of their horrified screams. And the sheer numbers of them, uncountable, multitudes, stretching back to the horizon, seeming to taper away but continuing to fill the frame of my vision.

I know exactly what has happened to them, they are the products of lies and liars. They were young men looking to be valued as human beings but they found only ruptured stomachs and gaping mouths. They followed the wrong signs, listened to the wrong voices.

They didn’t care, not really, who gave them their orders, who told them lies. It could have been the Pope or the President, a fascist, a communist, a religious zealot, a democrat. It didn’t matter when your life blood was running into the mud of a battle-field.

The insignia on the armband or the chest, whatever it was that gave their commanding officers the ultimate authority, it was there to mask another psychopath.

Back in Montevideo, when people asked, I would say I was a dancer. But when I first arrived there, in extreme youth, I told them I was an existentialist. I’d read Sartre and skimmed Camus and I had a little book of quotations from Kierkegaard: Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.

‘Existentialism, what’s that,’ Fanny asked me.

‘It’s a path to discovering your own individual essence by acts of free will.’

‘Gonna take a long time, then.’

‘It’s the only way. We’re not predetermined.’

‘Tell that to the death squads.’

Existentialism is one of those things that keep coming back at me. I don’t live it. But it won’t leave me alone.

There is another part of me which stands back from my emotions and judgements, which seeks to find a comprehensible framework to put them in. And that is the way I live my life. I am allowed to live that way because I have dance, I have the tango and the ability to surrender to my emotions in an attempt to live by the spirit. I can tramp between the two.

My existentialism has become a place to go. It is a dance hall. It is not enough, I know that. But it is what I have.

This is what my dream was about. It was one of my identities reminding the others to be conscious. I am not unusual. Like every other person I am afraid of knowing the enormity of my capabilities. What I can do and become is awesome.
There are further extracts on John Baker’s site, and you can catch up with other people’s opinions of the book through the author’s virtual tour.


Thanks for this, Ken. It's good to know that you enjoyed the book.

Not sure I'd call it a "literary crime novel". Yes there are crimes, there are plenty of crimes, but the focus of the novel is really not the solving of them, indeed the majority never get resolved. John's experience writing crime novels has clearly done him no harm but this is something quite different.

This is a strange experience. When I wrote Poet in the Gutter, my first novel, (so many years ago now I don't even want to count), I didn't set out to write a crime novel, and only discovered that I'd done so when my first editor explained it to me.
One of the main motivations for writing Winged with Death was to attempt an extended narrative in the first-person, and then the unconscious moved in with thematic concerns like time and revolution and denial, and I also noticed that there was some criminal activity going on from time to time.
But that's life.

I just finished it today and am starting to work on my piece on it. I wouldn't call it a literary crime novel either!

I want to read this book! ;)

Hey, that's really good. Somebody else wants to read my book. Sunday morning, feeling chuffed.

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