272pp. Scribe Publications. Paper, $29.99.
By YVIE YAO
“I had to give myself a crash-course in novel writing.” Although the Australian bookseller and artist, Miles Allinson, admitted that he had never thought writing a novel could be so complicated, his debut novel Fever of Animals (272 pages) proves himself not a novice in novel writing at all. It won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in May 2014, and will be published by Australia’s Scribe Publications in August, 2015, and in the U.K. in April 2016.
Fever of Animals tells a story of an Australian man, Miles, who contemplates his life through two journeys he has taken: one in which his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Alice, fell apart, and the other in which he searches for a Romanian surrealist painter, Emil Bafdescu, who mysteriously disappeared into the Hoia-Baciu Forest in 1967. Andrew Croome, author of Midnight Express and Document Z, praised this novel as “heartfelt, darkly comic, and nothing short of extraordinary,” while Emily Bitto, author of The Strays, raves about Allinson’s masterful and delicate treatment of time and memory in the novel’s sincere and meditative linked episodes. The novel is intellectual, and yet so intimate that I feel like having in-depth conversations with someone unassuming, humorous, and sharp-witted.
The narrator, Miles, is writing the manuscript we are reading, telling us how he aspired to be a surrealist artist but failed, how he accidentally found a Bafdescu’s painting in a random restaurant in Melbourne, and how he became interested in Bafdescu’s life, because the painting magically dispersed some particular kind of invisible sensation that Miles had longed for to appear in his own paintings. Miles soon found out, from Mircea Szaba’s biography of Emil Bafdescu, that though he was a fervent surrealist painter close with other Parisian surrealists in the 40s including Gherasim Luca, an extreme anarchist and revolutionist, Bafdescu abandoned his affirmation of faith and irrational juxtaposition of images completely, cut off his friendship with Luca, turned to a more realistic artistic style for a few years, and soon disappeared into the forest.
Miles could not comprehend Bafdescu’s sudden rejection of surrealism, or his failure to master surrealism. “I’m interested in what happens after surrealism, once the dream is dead.” Miles sees an astonishing parallel between him and Bafdescu, and by understanding Bafdescu, he hopes to better cope with his own failure being a surrealist artist. Therefore, Miles travels to town K in Romania to unravel Bafdescu’s secret life, but finds himself constantly haunted by his grief, disappointment, and loneliness after breaking up with his ex-girlfriend Alice, a difficult, brutal and intimidatingly sexual young lady, during the trip they took to Venice. Allinson skilfully reveals Miles’ emotional passiveness and psychological vulnerability through his portrayal of environment. Miles lives in “a small, dusty cottage,” feeling “overwhelmingly stressed and tight.” When he feels dark and anxious, the town also becomes sad, bleak, and relentlessly flat. Under Allinson’s nuanced treatment of the setting of this novel, the weather has got into Miles’ psychological specificity, and the line between his internal self and external self becomes blur and indistinctive. Miles’ hopelessness, however, is not carried over to his journey looking for Bafdescu; instead, his desperation and his hatred towards himself have been converted to his passion and curiosity, so that he can better reckon his own failure.
From many of Miles’ intellectual guesses and deductive reasoning on why Bafdescu rejected surrealism, Allinson demonstrates his vast knowledge of Parisian and Romanian surrealist movement in the beginning of the 20th century. He discusses the impact of fascists on Romanian surrealism—“a permanent state of invisibility, a permanent exile”; he conjectures Bafdescu’s submission to widespread communism and its artistic realism—a way of redemption to his “inflicted irrevocable humiliation” and of “punishment for the old dream”; while he sees the later development of mannerism and artistic complacency within the surrealist movement as a threat, he does not eradicate the possibility of Bafdescu, his idol, turning to these hostile movements.
Allinson’s writing demonstrates psychological acuity and an intuitive feel for the telling detail. In one story when Miles attends a panel discussion of Luca’s work by eminent Romanian scholars, hoping to unravel more clues about Bafdescu’s life.
“…where I feel far too visible. I am afraid that someone will ask me something in Romanian and expose me (why would someone just stand here and listen to something they do not understand a single word of?)…I walk around and sit on the floor, close to the front, hidden from everyone else…but from here, at least, I can examine the photograph of Luca in more detail.”
Allinson not only poignantly captures Miles’ unsettling feeling at a place where he experiences both language and landscape barriers and detects an undercurrent of his self-amusement, but also skilfully introduces a smooth transition from his psychological uneasiness to his calm scrutinization of Luca’s photo, which resonates with his emotional specificity. Moreover, Allinson uses repetitive imagery to get his point across, choosing to review Miles’ motives looking for Bafdescu’s secrets over and over again—when Miles introduces himself to a woman he met after the panel discussion, when he writes an email to Emil Bafdescu’s son, Luca Bafdescu, and when he daydreams about his reunion with Alice—since many of the contents in this book are very densely comprehensible and intellectually challenging. He does not shy away from such contrivances, making every detail in his novel explicit and help us stay focused understanding the essential truth that Allinson hopes to reveal.
Which leads us to ask the most important question: what does Allinson try to achieve out of writing this novel? Fever of Animals is full of high-flown sentiments and serendipitous connections of characters, places, and memories which somehow distillate the essence of this novel: human’s exploration of freedom. Like many other Parisian and Romanian surrealists, Gherasim Luca wanted a surrealist, and somewhat anarchist revolution to free people from false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures. However, from Miles’ discovery, Bafdescu might have found that such revolution would create endless entropy which “grinds everything down and sometimes only violence or cruelty or injustice” could empower humans to resist it, just like Miles’ unpredictable relationship with Alice had to be ended in a violent way: “I was forced to strike out and destroy something.” Allinson favors symbolism; the analogy of the frame of a painting to the estrangement of human minds, the infinite justice of humans eating and being eaten by animals in nature, and Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism all become Allinson’s devices proclaiming the essence of human freedom. This thoughtful discussion is bookended by Miles’ grasp of the invisible sensation that appears in Bafdescu’s painting in that Melbourne restaurant, in his “fever of exhaustion and the company of a strange dog.” Eventually we do not know whether Miles have found the answer to Bafdescu’s disappearance, and this becomes no longer important when Miles finally is able to escape from his imprisonment of past relationship, reckon with his failure being an artist, and to feel the depictive, abstract, and psychological senses of himself. Freedom is to be treasured above all else, and this might reflect Allinsons’ ultimate mastery of surrealism.
Fever of Animals is a beautifully written meditation on all aspects of life. I wish Miles’ personal relationship with his family members, particularly his dad, could be given more attention and Alice’s hysteria could be further explained, but these small shortfalls should not discredit what Allinson has achieved in this novel. Like what Bitto says, Allison “is a writer destined for a cult following.”
Who is Emil Bafdescu?
This aroused my curiosity even before I started reading the manuscript. Interestingly, all artists mentioned in this novel are real except for Emil Bafdescu and his biographer Mircea Szaba. I became really interested in whom Bafdescu was based on when Allinson was planning the novel. From my research based on the limited information found on internet, I highly suspect Bafdescu is based on Victor Brauner, a Romanian surrealist painter of the time period in this novel. Almost all his timelines and experiences coincide with Bafdescu’s. What affirms my belief are two following interesting facts:
- In 1968, a military technician named Emil Barnea captured a saucer flying over the Hoia-Baciu Forest. Maybe Emil Bafdescu’s first name is borrowed from this technician.
- Brauner held two exhibitions in Paris, named Mr. K’s Power of Concentration and The Strange Case of Mr. K, which might be the reason that the narrator, Miles, lives in a town called town K.