Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre

Visionary, electric - and wrong
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The Independent Culture

For Ludmila's Broken English, his second novel, Pierre decided to experiment. He junked the first-person narration of Vernon and set his book half in England and half in Ublilsk-Kuzhniskia, a war-torn territory of the Russian Caucasus, describing the process as one of moving away from his most comfortable territory: "the first person, and America". Ludmila gives us Pierre running amok in the chemistry lab of his mind, and we encounter some marvellous pyrotechnics in consequence. But the results are mixed.

Plot. In a dystopian Britain of the near future, the eventual privatisation of the health service means that doctors decide to try to "salvage at least one worthwhile Englishman" from a pair of adult Siamese twins. Aged 33, Blair and Gordon (for it is they) are severed from each other, dismissed from Albion House Institution and rehoused in a dystopian, terror-prone London of the future. Whereas Blair is carefully coiffed, "statesmanlike", desperately ingratiating and in dire need of a screw, Gordon (aka Bunny) is smaller, dourer, rumple-haired and half-blind. Yes, the names are a bit crass.

This part of the narrative essentially follows the brothers as they bicker their way towards Blair getting his wick dipped, incidentally encountering, among others, an American industrialist who owns the NHS, makes guns and peddles a fruit cocktail that blocks the conscience from functioning. Meanwhile, in Ublilsk, the stunningly beautiful Ludmila Ivanova chokes her grandfather to death for trying to bugger her. She flees her family's shack, and as Gnez troops close in on Ublilsk she negotiates the glossy advances of a mail-order-bride salesman. Finally her picture goes up on the internet. And guess whom it attracts.

Pierre's writing bleeds imagination, but Ludmila ends up proving what Vernon proposed: that though this writer is smashing at texture, he's not hot on plot. Blair and Bunny's quarrels are diverting enough, and Ludmila's family are a satisfactory collection of sub-Gogolian grotesques, but until the two narrative strands converge in the book's final pages each of these separate stories seems rather to lumber along in low gear. And the book seems perpetually distracted by linguistic gurning from the interesting subjects it raises: all too often what might have been a fruitful meditation on a rewarding theme (terrorism, dystopia, warfare) is stifled by a quip or a flashy passage of description.

Still, Pierre can unquestionably write, even if he does so in a manner that occasionally suggests that, like Blair and Bunny, he may be on limited release from a home for the dangerously ill. "From what he'd seen of it," runs one sentence about the city, "and the crossfire of air-kisses that drove it, he could easily imagine women's loins also sported siren-packs - mound-enhancing quim-klaxons whose notes rasped or chirped the day's pubic airs, just for fashion's sake." Another, about the country: "Lavender sunlight spilled like syrup over corrugations of snow, framing the high pasture as a theatre." There are passages of greater prosaism, but reading bits of Ludmila is like looking at drawings by a schizophrenic: thrilling, electric, visionary and almost unclassifiably wrong.

Wrongness intensifies when we get to Ublilsk, where Pierre cooks up a bizarre Slavonic idiolect for his characters that is chewy, vicious and brilliantly amusing. Said to be "the language most exquisitely tailored to the expression of disdain", Ubli is rich in colourful epithets that one wants to hoard against one's next terrible job interview: "Don't piss grease down my throat"; "I shit on the graves of your dead"; "Keep your filthy lies in your arse". But it's also a solemnly periphrastic tongue (one thinks of Alex in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, whose conversation ran on similar rocket-fuel): "'Angels help us,' said the old man. 'You want to frighten people with your photograph? Is it to be an agricultural implement to shock birds?'" Just as the reader begins to get to the bottom of all this, Pierre lets the oddity of the dialogue bleed over into his third-person narration, so that people keep doing strange things like "poking their eyes" at each other. There's no escape.

Ludmila's fractured plotting and its alien grotesquerie of language mean that it will charm fewer readers than Pierre's wily and charismatic first novel. It reads like a transitional book: one whose author is continually flexing his muscles and coming to grips with his own capacities. If the next book lives up to the promise of parts of this, then it will be Pierre's best yet. As it is, Ludmila stands in glorious, baroque celebration of its author's own talent but not much else, like a gigantically complex Keith Jarrett improvisation on "Happy Birthday to You".

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