“How to be alone yet to be in company? That,” the unnamed narrator of Travelling Companions tells us, “is the conundrum.” As a train strike throws him into travel limbo with other tourists on the Spanish–French border, he observes: “We are a group but not quite, there is a plausible deniability.” Banding together helps, he notes elsewhere, to “beat down the ontological insecurity”.
Antoni Jach’s fourth novel is set in Europe on the eve of the 21st century. Venice is sinking, and it’s raining where guidebooks promised sunshine, but with Facebook and smartphones still years in the future, connection happens IRL. Although it is November 1999, no one is reading Harry Potter: the tastes of the narrator and his “not-quite” group run more to The Decameron, Chekhov, Plato and Calvino. This is a self-consciously cultured, middle-class, Modernist novel of ideas, and the characters’ reading list is an effective Lonely Planet guide to the beaten tracks from whence the ideas come. Music and art play a role too: surreal attempts to get across the border, over the course of an elastic day, take the narrator three times to Figueres, birthplace of Salvador Dalí.
The novel’s present-tense narration and yearly holiday structure reinforce the sense of itinérance. There’s no backwards-looking view to organise or ascribe shape or meaning to the “aimless wandering”. The characters, solipsistic and prone to monologuing on their obsessions, listen and talk but rarely converse. Interruptions are expressly forbidden by Nina, the sylphic master storyteller whose tales entrance the others while obviating the need for conversation.
For all their imaginative plotting and existential questioning, Nina’s stories tend to centre on male protagonists and sexually available, beautiful women. The women in her stories, as in the novel itself, divide broadly into beautiful libertines and neurotic, bitter and/or shallow materialists, a certain kind of male fantasy and counter-fantasy. A young Swede (attractive libertine), for example, tells the group that when she was in high school, two years earlier, boys pulled off her clothes in public, leaving her standing in her cheap white underwear and laughing at her: “It wouldn’t have been so humiliating if I was standing in expensive French lingerie.” (Said no sexual harassment survivor ever.)
Nina, incurious about her companions, naps when others speak; it’s hard to imagine how she collected all those stories in the first place. The narrator, an unjudgemental collector of narrative bricolage, finds her fascinating. They can have each other.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Travelling Companions, Antoni Jach".
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