Timbuktu

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Read 13/11/2016-14/11/2016

Rating: 3 stars

I love Paul Auster. From the moment I read The New York Trilogy, curled up on a bed built into roof space above the kitchen in a friend’s flat in Brussels, I have been hooked. He’s one of my go to authors. There hasn’t been a single book of his I’ve read that I haven’t liked. He is clever and funny, wry and intelligent, warm and understanding of human nature.

For some reason, though, I’ve resisted reading Timbuktu. I’m not a huge fan of anthropomorphised animals narrating books. I find it a bit hokey. Things I read about Timbuktu made me think it would fall into that arena of mawkish sentimentality. So I resisted.

Until someone asked whether I’d read it. I could only think of flippant reasons for not having done so, so I pulled it down from the shelf.

It isn’t mawkish. The dog, Mr Bones, speaks well, in actual English and not some cutesy form of doglish. It is emotional, though. Page two almost made my eyes leak, causing me to call the person who instigated my reading of the book a bastard. There was more near eye leakage as the book went on, as well.

The story of Willy’s parents surviving the holocaust and starting over in the US showed that nothing has changed for refugees. You can be professionally qualified in the place you’re fleeing, but only allowed to do blue collar jobs in the place you escape to. And, as is apparent at the present time, you never feel entirely secure in your new home.

The device of giving Willy Mr Bones to talk to enables Auster to extemporise on what goes through a person’s mind as they approach their known death. Of the people I’ve known to die of an incurable illness, the two who knew it was coming, I was too young to want to ask them what it was like. We do that, don’t we? In our rudeness of health, we avoid considerations of death. Especially when young.

The one person I know now who is approaching a certain death no longer has brain capacity to discuss it. I’d like to ask her, I think. But then again, no. So instead, I’ve made do with Auster’s imagining of what a dying down-and-out chooses to share with his dog as he contemplates his imminent demise. Willy can share his thoughts because Mr Bones doesn’t respond, doesn’t dissuade, doesn’t display discomfort in the face of this evidence of mortality.

What Willy describes is comfortingly normal. Childhood reminiscences, regrets I’ve had a few, lists of things intended to be done but never achieved. Of course it’s all normal. Auster isn’t facing death, so how can he really write about the experience?

Willy’s reflections on the things he hasn’t done made me think of my own list. I’m thinking about it anyway, given the political atmosphere at the moment. Some of the things that popped into my head have surprised me. Some of the things I want to try because why the fuck not if it’s all going to be over soon anyway.

Auster’s writing style keeps everything on the level. It’s sad, but it’s funny. It’s reflective and concise. It’s a prose poem to loneliness, confusion, and the human will to do good.

The death of Willy (it’s no secret) gives Auster the chance to explore through Mr Bones what the loss of a loved one involves. Mr Bones understands that he can’t waste time wishing things were different, he knows he’s on his own now, that a new chapter is starting and he needs to reinvent himself. As I’m thinking about death and loss a lot at present, I found this interesting. I know I’ve had to suppress grief and get on with things. I know it’s not healthy. I know I struggle with the need to become a differently defined person in the face of loss. I find it bewildering. To everyone else, I’m still the same, but inside I’m not. The trouble is, I don’t know who I am.

But that’s by the by. Mr Bones knows who he is, even when people give him a new name. He’s Mr Bones and he belongs to Willy, and that’s all that matters in the end.

It’s a sweet little story. It diverted me on a train journey and gave me things to think about. Once Willy was gone and it was just the dog fending for himself, I found it a little less interesting. I’m really not a fan of anthropomorphised animals in books, and that’s what kept this as good, rather than great.

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