Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Last Orders

Another good book to read during this national day holiday is Last Orders by Graham Swift. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 (by now you would know I love the Booker's lists - they are written in a more beautiful, poetic English language and the stories are unique.)

Little would you expect four men in a pub to ponder on an issue as weighty as their impending mortality. But death does strange things to us. When confronted with the prospect of death, we become more conscious of what it means to be alive.

And so when Jack Dodds, master butcher, passes away, the people he leaves behind in the small British town of Bermondsey struggle to make sense of their loss. Jack has left instructions for his ashes to be scattered into the sea. His widow Amy is unwilling to perform the task. Consequently, his drinking mates, Ray, Lenny, Vic, and his son Vince, are left to do it. Seeing their old friend Jack become nothing more than ashes in a jar, the four men realize how ill-prepared they are to deal with death itself.

In a style reminiscent of traditional British novels, author Graham Swift draws out fragments of the past from the memories of these four men. With prose that is even, measured, and at times too clever, Swift recounts the stories of missed opportunities and tales laden with regret. The four men each recall their past loves: lost loves, secret loves. They tell of their large ambitions, out of place in a little town like Bermondsey. They share how being drafted to fight in war changed their outlook on life and broadened their horizons.

In Last Orders, life itself is portrayed as a powerful, deterministic force, one that is able to inalterably shape the course of our future. All the characters struggle to escape their individual destinies, but only some of them succeed. Looking back, they wonder if they chose the right path in life. But as readers, we realize that some of them never really had a choice. This only heightens the ironic inevitability of their situation.

Yet all of them cannot escape death, that great equaliser. Vic, an undertaker by profession, says "the dead are the dead, I've watched them, they're equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them... And it doesn't do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It's what makes all men equal for ever and always. There's only one sea."

Graham Swift's writing style makes you sit up and take notice. Meditative and ponderous, conspicuous and self-conscious, it is wryly comic in a dry, British way. Swift coaxes emotion out of four reserved men, telling their stories in their own words, preserving their own unique speech pattern of Bermondsey. Each of the men have their own private moments, when they reflect on the sudden loss of their friend and the brevity of life.

At one point, Ray excuses himself to go to the bathroom. "But it's not just to take a leak," he finds out. "I find the Gents and I unzip, then I feel my eyes go hot and gluey, so I'm leaking at both ends. It's cold and damp and tangy in the Gents." Later, he says, "Well, that's that over with. Crying's like pissing. You don't want to get caught short, specially on a car journey."

Swift uses travel as a parable for life. In Last Orders, all the characters are in a state of flux. Four men travel to scatter Jack's ashes into the sea, representing the journey we make through life. In the novel, as in life, some characters arrive at the endpoint, some are in the process of travelling, while others are fated never to reach their final destination. But it is on this journey that they - and we - ultimately find redemption. It is in our journey, that God measures us. Reaching the destination is merely the melting vanilla ice-cream on top of that warm brownie...

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