Malcolm Bradbury: Doctor Criminale. Penguin Books, 1993. 344 pages.
review by Otto Steinmayer.
My editor, who everyone knows is a brutal, low-browed man who wears braces and enjoys stinking cigars—in short, a real old-fashioned newspaper type—pulled me over to the file cabinet where the books are kept. “Here, you,” he said, thrusting a paperback. “A post-modern novel. Make it interesting.” He shot a cloud of smoke in my face.
A post-modern novel? I checked out the hind blurb. Instantly transported in thought back 18 years to my days at what we’ll call for decency’s sake Adolf Eichmann College, I recalled my late friend Marty perusing a red-hot piece of literary controversy in the NY Times. “Guess what?” he announced. “We’re no longer in the modern age. We’re all now post-modern! Hah!”
Post-modern?... At the time we were
barely out of our teens, and
to discover that we were “post-” whatever felt like standing beside the
empty parade ground gazing at trampled banners, like living on the
sci-fi landscape of a wrecked planet. I gather that this term (“po-mo”
for short) is a coinage by Dead-Serious Thinkers to describe our age of
pastiche, fragmentation, quotation, parody, bricolage,
self-referentiality, the death of the author, and the Absence of the
I wondered why our Editor gave the book to me. It’s Serious Dead Thinkers are my specialty, and Re-construction exercises me more than De-construction. The past you can count on, as Kundera says. It’s full of event, colour and sharp detail. By contrast the future is gray, foggy, and threatening. Where does that leave the “modern,” from the Latin modo, “now”? We like to give labels to past decades, the Roaring ’20s, the Warring ’40s. Perhaps to label the era we are actually living through is an attempt to make it as comfy and certain as eras remembered. Sure, another po-mo trait: Instant Nostalgia.
This being a po-mo novel, I tried to read it in post-modern style. I began in the middle, took a random sample of pages back and forth, and skipped to the end. It didn’t work. So I read it in a distinctly “primitive” way, from cover to cover, at a not even modernique kitchen table. And so I can come to report to you on it.
Our hero is young London literary journalist Francis Jay . His adventures begin at the awards ceremony of the Booker Prize, where he is televised spouting drivel about British fiction. This makes him famous overnight, as “that prick at the Booker.” Such is the nature of post-modern fame. This ends his career—not much of a problem since his newspaper went bankrupt while he was on camera.
He wakes up next day after an hearty drunk to find himself a toyboy to the producer for an arty TV series “Great Thinkers of the Age of Glasnost.” His services soon come to include research for said series, and to Francis’ lot falls the subject of the eminent Dr. Bazlo Criminale.
Francis writes a treatment which nobody reads, but whose title, “The Mystery of Dr. C—,” arouses wild enthusiasm from the people with the money. Poor Francis is an intellectual. He’s really interested in Criminale’s ideas. These excite nothing from the jackals of the media, who sniff the carrion odour of sex, money, and lies.
Trouble is that Criminale, for all his constant exposure at conferences worldwide, his friendship with everybody from Castro to Bush, his formidable reputation as controversialist who crossed pens with Heidegger and Adorno, as great author (witness numerous articles, his play, “The Women Behind Luther,” and a perfect novel, Homeless) is a shadowy figure. He is possibly Hungarian, Lithuanian, born in 1921 or 1929, his present citizenship indeterminate... Criminale is “an unknown quantity.” The TV hacks just might get sex, money, and lies after all. Nothing delights them more than to deconstruct an idealistic facade to its sordid reality.
So as the insatiable Lavinia lolls in Vienna
scouting local colour
(operas, champagne, Sachertorte and more young men on the
programme’s recce budget), Francis rattles in a train east and plunges
into a genteelly slapstick spy story.
First stop is Budapest, a goulash of Mitteleuropäischer angst and intrigue. What would you expect from a name like “Criminale”? But keep in mind that po-mo promotes parody. A glance at the Hungarian dictionary showed that our mcguffin-scholar’s name decodes as ““childish...dreadful/preposterous,” and true to his label Criminale erratically appears and disappears in a fashion where chance and subtlety, the je ne sais quoi de sinistre and farce are indistinguishable. Francis chases Criminale to a sumptuous conference on writing and power at the splendidly appointed Villa Barolo in north Italy, from which,—his prostitute status as TV writer being known—he is “ejaculated,” as his German friend puts it, like Adam from Eden.
Then to Lausanne, home of Calvinist brothels and numbered accounts. Here Francis’ Hungarian bimbo performs a surprising feat one would hardly guess likely from her ditsy and shop-o-maniac character. In consequence of which Francis Jay, in the bowels of the Crédit Mauvais, metamorphosizes to a kafkaesque Franz K. and is recruited by leather-trousered Cosima Bruckner, European Community secret agent, whose beat involves paper pigs, the Wine Lake, and the Beef Mountain. (I have not met such a sleuth since the film “The Killers,” whose hero was a pistol-packing insurance adjuster.)
The elusive Dr. Criminale turns out to be—you might expect—something more and something less than what he seems, less comic, and more representative of the tragic reality, rather than the flippant seeming, of this blood-soaked century. In short, Dr. Criminale is not a po-mo puzzle after all, but a good old story of humour and pathos. Along the way, the novel perpetrates jolly satire on post-modernity in general, and, as a novel, even a funny one should, gives us something to think about real life.
Bradbury (why do I put his name off so long? it must be the Death of the Author) has accomplished the difficult literary feat of creating in Criminale a character who seems plausibly smarter than the author. For those who relish technical points, Bradbury does this by rationed description of his genius’ accomplishments, and by contrast with the ubiquitous naiveté of Francis the narrator.
Perhaps Malaysians are so flushed with simple,
hard-won modernity that
they neglect to notice that we too do not escape post-modernity. Since
Bradbury’s story evolves at conferences, where the work of the
post-modern world is done, the following testimony comes in pat for
their benefit. A certain administrator at a certain institution of
learning where I happen to work was on official leave for three weeks,
while I fumed over documents that needed chopping or I would not be
paid or go to jail or something. Much later it turned out that he had
been at a conference. It’s subject? “How to Attend Conferences.” No
wonder modernity passed us by so quickly!