Saturday, October 15, 2016

Belgium: The Guard, by Peter Terrin

I wanted to keep a good gender balance on my world reading list. After all, well over fifty percent of the books by British and American writers that I most enjoy are by women. For some countries, it's hard to find any books at all, so if I can find one author, and it's a man, I'll read it. But for Belgium, I figured there must be some good women authors out there. However, all my googling revealed one: Amélie Nothomb. And as she was raised as a diplomat's daughter, most of her books seem to involve foreigners in Japan. Which wasn't quite what I was after.

In the end I settled for Peter Terrin, as his books are readily available in our library. I will just have to address the gender balance elsewhere.(Which reminds me, it might be time to do a count up and see how I am progressing on that score).

"The Guard" is set in a dystopian future, at an unspecified date, in an unnamed city. Harry and Michel are guards who live in the basement of a block of luxury apartments. It is their job to ensure the security of the apartment owners, in the face of nameless threats from outside - a plague? a nuclear war? Rioting and looting? They never leave the basement. At least one of them must be on guard at all times, so they take turns sleeping. One weekend all the residents but one leave the building and do not return. But Harry and Michel remain on post, faithfully guarding and ensuring the security of the one remaining tenant. If they do their job well, they hope to be rewarded by "the organisation" with promotion to "the elite" - the guards who are given jobs on spacious country estates, with fresh air and gardens.

This is a fascinating study of the effects of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation on the human brain. The tension mounts. At first it is clear when Michel is fantasising and when his thoughts are about reality. Towards the end of the book, his mind ever more confused, the reader is left wondering. Is that what happened, or is that in Michel's mind?

There was only one plot line which I felt struck a false note. Eventually the organisation provides a third guard. However, this is not till after most of the residents have left. The story would have made sense if the organisation had forgotten about Harry and Michel, or if some nameless misfortune had made them unable to provide for them. Since they dropped off a third guard, clearly they haven't forgotten about them. But why do it, when nearly all the residents have left, without also providing supplies? Why not relieve Harry and Michel from their posts completely, or drop off supplies? I felt that the third guard was merely a device to rack up the tension, an unnecessary one. Other than that, the writer depicts Michel's state of mind, and the events that took place, with great skill.

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