‘The Bath Fugues’ by Brian Castro

2009, 354 p.

As you might guess from the title, Castro is an author who plays with language and I finish this book feeling deluged by words, allusions and puns.  This book speaks of “bath fugues”, not “Bach fugues” but Castro’s own description of the Bach fugue gives a good preview of what this book is about and what it does:

Bach wrote fugues.  The important thing about a fugue or ‘flight’ is that all the voices are equal and independent in counterpoint.  They are all relative to each other, and in this organised complexity, they speak together, drop out, become fellow travellers, form pairs of dialogues, and in general, mutilate the subject by inverting, augmenting, truncating or copying it. (p. 274)

The book comprises three interlinked novellas, and the resonances reverberate between them.  Characters from one novella bob up in another and references recur between all three- bicycles, Montaigne, Baudelaire, forgery, baths-  and  clang associations send the writing off in unexpected directions.  This is clever, clever writing, a virtuosic performance.

The first novella is narrated by Jason Redvers, an aging art forger who is convinced that his old friend, the academic and writer Walter Gottlieb had appropriated his family history as the basis for his own writing.  The second novella focuses on this ancestor, the Portuguese poet and judge Camilo Conceicao,  self-exiled in Macau during the 1920s, surrounded by his mistresses and sinking deeper into opium addiction.  The final novella revolves around Dr Judith Sarraute,  a doctor now living on the North Queensland coast who numbers amongst her earlier patients Jason Redvers, her cabinet of collected exotic venom and plans for an art gallery that itself may hold the counterfeit, or at least reworked, paintings that have emerged earlier in the book.

Complex? Yes, and  I found it hard to work my way through the book.  I marvelled at it, but was not swept up by it.  I suspect that this book itself  is an intricate, elaborated work that fits into a larger oeuvre because I kept detecting echoes of Castro’s other works – The Garden Book and Shanghai Dancing, which like this book received critical acclaim, awards and shortlisting. They are books that, like this one,  made me wonder if I’d understood them as well as I should and which likewise revelled in language and their own complexity.

It’s a book of the head, not of the heart.  I feel as if I should read it a second time, and I’m sure that a second reading would yield even more discoveries.  But – and here’s the rub- I can’t find it in myself to want to read it a second time.

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