Set in Port Said during the period of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Something to Answer For shows the events through the eyes of Townrow, who is a… well…I’m not sure.
Let me explain.
The novel opens with an exchange between Townrow and two men he meets in an airport. One of them accuses the British government of not warning Jews in Europe about Hitler’s final solution, specifically the trains that were used to carry people to the camps. Townrow defends the British government, saying that if they had known what the trains were for they would have warned people. The man replies:
“In Greece, we have a corrupt government. I say this openly, here in Rome. I would say it in Athens. […] The Englishman is not like this. He believes he is good and sincere himself and he believes he has a government that is good and sincere too. I don’t care whether it is a Labour Government or a Conservative Government. He may disagree with it but he does not think it is corrupt.”
At this early stage of the novel I was hooked. I do love an end-of-Empire novel. Unfortunately, for me at least, the novel takes a huge detour halfway through the first chapter. Townrow goes drinking with an old acquaintance and wakes up, naked and beaten, in the desert. From then on the book is different. His head injury means that he never quite knows what is happening throughout the rest of the narrative. He starts to question who he is. People remember him from the past but by other names and he cannot recall whether or not he shares a past with them.
In a way, Townrow becomes a metaphor for Britain or the British or Empire; dazed and confused as history progresses through and around it. On one level this an interesting narrative device, but Townrow’s unreliable memory ensures that anything can happen; any event that takes place in the book can be remembered differently. As a consequence any real sense of tension is lost. The further I progressed into the novel the less I cared.
My other issue with Something to Answer For was that the characters seem a little stereotypical. This is due in part to our viewing them through Townrow’s damaged viewpoint (he is half blind after his beating) and may well be part of the larger metaphor of Empire, but it still felt un-subtle. I didn’t believe them as people. As with the problem of memory, this lessens the reading. If the characters are not real, or don’t feel real, there is nothing at stake. Their actions are unimportant.
Which is not to say that Something to Answer For is not a good novel, just one that I found hard to embrace. It is clever, and funny, and has something to say. And of course, a postmodernist reading would scoff at the notion of characters feeling ‘real’ as all characters are constructs of the author (and technically the reader, I guess). However, I still remain unconvinced that novels/novelists can get away with not making you believe in their characters. Or, perhaps more accurately, I think those novels that do convince you their characters are real are ultimately more rewarding for it. The ending of Figures in a Landscape would not have affected me so strongly had I not been drawn in by the characters. The ending affected me because it happened to them. The end of Something to Answer For was just an ending.