The Escape: Songs of Terror

The Escape opens with Raphael Haffner, 78, English, Jewish, lover of cricket, jazz and women, hiding in a hotel wardrobe to observe a young woman named Zinka have sex with her boyfriend. To observe her boyfriend Niko suck at her nipples. Haffner is a retired banker visiting this Alpine resort town to reclaim his dead ex-wife’s villa but finds himself, as he always seems to find himself, at the center of a sexual farce. See, Zinka knows he’s in the cupboard — she has a thing for Haffner. And Frau Tummel, a middle-aged married German woman, has also fallen for Haffner’s good looks — the septuagenarian still has them.

English writer Adam Thirlwell likes to write about sex. His first novel, Politics, centered on the making and unmaking of a threesome and an excerpt from it landed him on Grantas Best Young British Novelists list in 2003. He’s also bright as can be and incredibly well-read — The Delighted States, his second book, was a luxurious, alternate history of the novel and ended with Thirlwell’s own translation of Nabokov’s Mademoiselle O.” It was a slow, strange thrill to read, like checking in a hotel somewhere you’ve never been and finding the staff is made up of your favorite dead writers. They know each other? They work together! They carry the bags to your room.

The Escape has the marks of both books. Itspostscript lists 49 writers whose works Thirlwell either quoted directly or adapted, including Kafka, Flaubert, Perec, Hitchcock, Tolstoy and Tupac. There’s sex but compared to Politics’ it’s less extravagant, though still chronicled by a theatrical narrator. The kind who addresses the reader as “dear reader” often enough to indicate a secret drinking game is at work.

The narrator reveals that he was born 60 years after Haffner, that he was a friend. As the book goes on, this information feels inadequate, as if a complete stranger had come for dinner, shared the great stories of your parents with you, then disappeared after dessert. The stories were good, now you need to know about the stranger.

The narrator invokes the aging libertine archetype, affectionately buttering his prose with the term Haffnerian, scrupulously reporting on old Haffner’s sexual triumphs, on his funny-sad-awesome mediocrity, in ways that a first person narrator could not. Or at least, could not without being written off as an asshole. And the narrator insists that Haffner is not entirely an asshole because he is many things. The chapter titles — Haffner Amphibious, Haffner Delinquent, Haffner Gastronomic, and so on — suggest the same.

Haffner is most lovable, least cartoonish, when his religious, overweight, hip-hop-loving grandson Benji turns up unannounced, half way through the novel, seeking romantic counsel from his grandfather. The two enjoy an epic Chinese dinner together and talk Jewishness, women, hip hop — Benji is crushing on the immigrant French hip hop of turn of the century Marseilles and desperately wants Haffner to understand why. To hear what he hears.

After dinner, the plot has to move forward. Will Haffner get back his dead ex-wife’s house? Which female contestant will win this man of great sexual appetite by tying him up and penetrating him with a lubricated candlestick? The narrator, that know-it-all, revealed in the first few pages that this adventure in the center of Europe was Haffner’s finale. One can’t help but wish that the two heroes would stay in the sanctuary of the Chinese restaurant and eventually, maybe, love each other instead of loving the versions of each other they used to love. Instead, though Benji asks him not to, Haffner goes to his potentially dangerous business meeting good and drunk, running Cole Porter lines like prayer.

Haffner is unfamiliar with the song that haunts his grandson, Mourir 1000 Fois. Benji thinks it’s about terror, the final countdown, the violence of some foreign gangster fantasy. Truth is, Oxmo Puccino, Parisian by way of Mali, certified bad ass, blessed with smarts, swagger, the meaty voice of a French Biggie, considers love. Considers the necessary, futile task of clinging to who and what one loves in the face of death. Love is gold, Ox says. And that’s why a man can die a thousand ways, a thousand times — so many Haffners, so many deaths.

Listen to the song from 1998, it thumps slowly, a little out of time, like an old heart. The opening lyrics translated:

I’m afraid of death, I know,
I’ve seen it spell my name, call my friends,
I never saw them again, I’m afraid that without me
life will go its course, some other cunt will get the cash.

Listen to Oxmo’s 2009 album here, and see Thirlwell read with Gary Shteyngart at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes & Noble on April 5th.

Tejal Rao is a writer from Northwest London.

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