The Friendly Ones
Philip Hensher is one of the more compelling writers alive, whether he’s writing about gay bears (the human middle-aged kind), as in King of the Badgers – an offputting book – or showing that he is the heir to Thomas Mann, as he does in The Emperor Waltz, his novel about the matter of Germany – so grand a book it makes you gasp.
His new novel, The Friendly Ones, is an extraordinary whirligig, a complex, cross-textured bringing together of two family sagas, one English, one Bengali, and it has elements of soap, of wild reckless expository licence, and of sometimes weird and excessive emotional intensities. But the upshot is a book of such deliberate nobility and stupefying ambition in the face of sometimes racketing material that you can only weep or cheer. The Friendly Ones is an epic of multicultural Britain that is full of an extraordinary and unstable sense of the dark and backward abysm of time. It’s a dazzler and, though it’s rugged, everyone should read it.
The Friendly Ones: a tricky trapdoor of a title, which evokes the Eumenides, the kindly ones or Furies of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. It encompasses nice white Britishers, whoever they might be, and ranges all the way to those Pakistanis who were responsible for the murder and torture of Bangla heroes in the war of 1971, who are subjects of enduring rage on the part of the author, as his epilogue makes explicit.
We start with a big party thrown by a Bengali professor and his wife at which a young boy, who is a twin, gets the stone of a fruit stuck in his throat and the old doctor from next door hops over the fence, grabs a knife and saves his life. The doctor – this is in the ’90s – has a son who runs away from Oxford, an adoptively posh daughter married to a wealthy chap in the city, another daughter who grabs steering wheels without being able to drive, and a son who has downturned eyes like a puffin but is a mild and likeable chap who becomes an actor.
Oh yes, and he also has a wife dying of bowel cancer whom he declares he wants to divorce.
The fundamental Bangladesh Bengalis’ story is that a young boy, the professor’s beloved younger brother, is betrayed by his sister and brother-in-law to Pakistani military murderers. The novel uses the most complex and unpredictable time scheme, jumping wherever it wants to go, whenever. It runs, in fact, from the early ’70s to the present, and it encompasses such relative strangeness as the shy Oxford chap rejecting the advances of the young girl from the Bangladeshi family with a glacial primness, and the old rogue of a doctor turning 100 and a huge party being thrown for him by the twin boys, who are now computer game billionaires. And yes, the girl who cops the sermon from the shy guy ends up as a baroness.
Despite having read both Nabokov’s and Charles Johnston’s translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Hensher’s note in his epilogue that he is consciously indebted to this work came as a complete surprise, although a plot summary makes clear the reference is to the sermonising rebuff. It’s still a mystery, despite innumerable revisitings of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, why he also mentions his debt to it, though the doctor who wants to betray his wife as she lies dying does think a young girl at the end shares her name, and there may be the dimmest echo of the daughter/wife reunion in the romance. And perhaps Mamillius, the boy who says a sad tale’s best for winter and who dies never to return, is paralleled by the young Bangla hero.
It doesn’t matter. The Friendly Ones is clearly the kind of work that might be dismissed as a mouldy tale, as Ben Jonson and Lytton Strachey were inclined to dismiss Shakespeare’s romances, those mystery-of-life plays – of which The Winter’s Tale may be the greatest – which wipe away all tears, though tears are the subject of much of their story, and which play with the subject of resurrection as if it were a conjuror’s trick. All of which makes this bizarre book weirdly appropriate for Easter.
Hensher is almost impossible to place because he breaks every rule, even those of his own contriving, and yet he comes across not at every, but at nearly every juncture, as an extraordinary literary master. And this mastery is not, on the surface, a matter of iconoclasm or innovative hijinks of verbalism but of the way he can juxtapose great slabs of apparently diverse material and make the progression work, even as he glides through and across time.
The Friendly Ones is a novel made up of the tesserae, the fragments of the tragicomic nature of daily life. It is full of great gaping holes of improbability which are artful or, in any case, can scarcely not be conscious. The British family in Sheffield, are, we are told many pages in – and far too late for it not to be incompatible with our imaginings – bizarrely short. And not only are they bizarrely short, but this is specified in feet and inches. And yet the women (who range from 4'11" to 5'2") are much less short relatively speaking than the men who are all about five-foot tall. This is madness with no discernible method in it – symbolism about the whities as pygmies won’t get Hensher out of it – yet it scarcely matters. The Friendly Ones is one of those strange and lightning-struck works of literature that outstares the lunacies of its own making and is kept standing by the sheer grandeur of its parts so that, like late Shakespeare, it creates itself as a kind of ruin which it then invites the reader to inhabit with such a ravishing power of insinuation that we cannot refuse.
It is also discernibly a book with various conservatisms echoing through it, a book in praise of enterprise, in praise of wealth, and then with great power and savagery, with a nearly martial heroism of effect, a book that speaks against political outrage.
If Britain produces any quantity of fiction that comes within cooee of this East-West romance, it will be going through some Renaissance of fiction. QSS
4th Estate, 624pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Philip Hensher, The Friendly Ones". Subscribe here.