Wednesday 14 March 2012

Secret Europe by John Howard & Mark Valentine, Exposition Internationale, (Bucharest)

Like a Cold War-era directive, I received this – one of a limited edition of 222 - through the post from Romania. A smart, Art Deco retro cover, featuring a heraldic red flame upon matt-black boards, above the title - invitingly illicit - compounded the evocation. I was otherwise relieved that your language-illiterate reviewer discovered its contents reassuringly rendered in his own tongue.
  Over just 180 pages, a whole twenty-five tales feature. (Ten by Howard; fifteen by Valentine). But no imaginative deficit is the cause. Economy of language is more often a signifier of focused intent than any dearth of ideas, and I was pleased to uncover this fact through their reading.
  Collectively, the tales are set during the tide of social and political unrest sweeping across Eastern Europe before and between the Wars. Small but telling endeavours are used by its citizens to undermine the governing parties’ grips on power. Howard’s sense of place is confidently realised without dominating plot. (One unavoidable exception is ‘Westenstrand,’ but here the ever-shifting landscape is a character by itself). His best tales relate little telling revenges committed against the state by those who work under or within it – a very European topic. ‘The Silver Eagles’ finds citizen defiance expressed in the counterfeiting of coins, while ‘The White City’ sees comedic lampooning on official stamps.
  Valentine’s tales highlight a more psychological motivation, where we follow individuals’ affected internally by their environments. These, in particular, lard the book with traits of the uncanny. ‘The Other Salt’ harbours a neat twist on a traditional horror motif, while ‘A Lantern For Carpathia’ follows the trail of a lost brand of cigarette to their stoical guardian whose last outpost has one far more compelling story to tell. Together, all feel strangely prescient in our own time of peoples’ uprising against state control.
  Where a sole protagonist is concerned, a remote coolness and ambiguous intent, redolent of Robert Aickman, unites both writers. In Howard’s ‘Wandering Paths,’ a man who has lost his way and the chance to reconcile with his wife seems condemned to pursue his failing geographically; while Valentine’s ‘The Lion of Chaldea’ sees a young Iberian scholar posted by his institute on a goodwill mission to Cadiz and the company of his host; ‘original’ thinker, Dr. Ecquo. Considered a crank by the scholar’s employers, Ecquo claims the citizens of the city once known as Chaldea, "saw the stars very differently from us…where we see mythological figures, creatures, heroes, symbols, they saw – something else." We are asked to consider; is Ecquo truly a crank or, also, ‘something else’?
  The historical and geographical knowledge of their subject, allied to the cool competence and tight, economical use of language united in tales not a word longer than required, suggests this small press release may well be Howard’s and Valentine’s best work so far. I hope they are reissued in time, to be appreciated by a far wider audience.

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