Shadows in the cave

From ancient myth to wartime Greece and Sixties Paris, this fierce novel hunts for the truth.
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This novel's first 100 pages, a retelling of the classical myth of a hunt for a terrible boar, are written with brilliant, relentless intensity. The imagery is vivid, the rhythms taut. The heroes who gather for this hunt "have murdered their brothers and been cleansed and betrayed. Their very beginnings have twinned them with the manner of their ends, which will come as thunderbolts out of the bright sky and burn their images into the ground."

This novel's first 100 pages, a retelling of the classical myth of a hunt for a terrible boar, are written with brilliant, relentless intensity. The imagery is vivid, the rhythms taut. The heroes who gather for this hunt "have murdered their brothers and been cleansed and betrayed. Their very beginnings have twinned them with the manner of their ends, which will come as thunderbolts out of the bright sky and burn their images into the ground."

This intensity is impressive but daunting. The reader's experience is similar to that of Atalanta, one of the hunters, caught in a flash flood: "A hammer formed from water and soil had knocked the air from her lungs and pressed her flat against the smooth rock."

There are three dominant images in this first section: the boar, which comes to stand for all violence and evil, in particular that of the Second World War; the dark cave where the boar is probably killed but of which nothing can be reliably said; and the sexual tensions between the three hunters who survive - Atalanta, who first wounds the boar, Meleager, who kills it, and Meilanion who (insofar as is possible) witnesses the end of the hunt.

The novel's second section, set in Paris in (probably) the late Sixties, is a series of variations on these images. A film is to be made, based on Solomon Memel's famous poem "The Boar Hunt". The director, Ruth, is a childhood friend and almost-lover of Solomon. Throughout the second section, Lawrence Norfolk cuts abruptly between scenes in Paris and the story from which "The Boar Hunt" derives, of Solomon's escape from Nazi-occupied provincial Romania to the mountains of north-western Greece.

At the beginning of the war, with northern Romania still occupied by the Soviets, Solomon (Sol) and his friend Jakob are rivals for Ruth's love. The two men represent rival attitudes to truth. Jakob is rationalist and uncompromising. Sol, in contrast, is willing to sacrifice factual truth to what he sees as poetic truth.

In the Fifties, when Sol is famous, Jakob republishes "The Boar Hunt" in Tel Aviv, with footnotes that constitute an insidious assault on Sol's integrity. A scandal ensues, but Jakob is eventually dismissed as a madman. Ruth's motive for her film, we slowly discover (she is an aloof, Atalanta-like figure), is to find out what really happened in the mountains.

The hunted boar takes many guises. It is Sol, hunted by the Nazis; the Greek partisans who rescue him; it is Eberhardt, a Nazi intelligence officer hunted by partisans; Sol again, hunted by the memories unleashed by Ruth; and it is truth, hardest of all to track down.

In sweeping spirals, the story returns again and again to the same moment, the mystery of what happened, toward the end of the war, in a dark mountain cave. We learn that everyone has committed acts of betrayal. But darkness, as Ruth reminds us, cannot be filmed.

The novel is not faultless. Ruth is an unconvincing figure. Two Paris subplots are irrelevant and silly. The obscurity of some wartime passages may be justified as a way of making the reader, like Sol, feel profoundly in the dark. But the novel is so dense with detail, that it is all too easy to miss a crucial clue. And Norfolk plays a risky game with footnotes: the first section contains 180, some with 80 separate references. Their existence is relevant to the story, but the (presumably intentional) impenetrability is a dangerous encouragement to skim. All in all, however, this extremely ambitious novel works as vivid storytelling - and as a thoughtful examination of the impossibility of truthful storytelling.

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