Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

The premise of this fascinating novel is that Samuel Beckett's wartime experiences in the French resistance had a huge influence on his later work, and most especially on "Waiting for Godot". Baker has taken this idea and created a work of fiction where the young Beckett and his life-long lover Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil experience the war as a series of scenes from Godot and other works, interspersed with other scenes that are Baker's own creation. The result is powerful.

There is some clunkiness too, particularly in the early chapters. The meetings with Joyce are told awkwardly, perhaps to emphasize Beckett's own awkwardness in front of someone he revered so much, but the result is that the novel lurches unsteadily at the beginning. And the tale of Joyce passing his old overcoat to Beckett who wore it incessantly until he finally decides to leave it behind in Ireland, seems an obvious and contrived metaphor - could it actually be true?

But the middle part soars. Their long wait outside the town of Rousillon is brilliantly told, and encapsulates so much that is wonderful about Godot. The eponymous country road and tree, Beckett and Suzanne (Didi and Gogo) weary and footsore, in hiding from the Gestapo, waiting for someone, an unknown, to bring them to safety in “free” Vichy France.
“This man, this contact,” she says, tugging off her socks. Her feet are patched with red, and blisters have formed, and popped, and been worn clean away again, leaving the skin raw.
“How will we know that it's him?”
“Who else could it be?”
“But that's the problem! That's what I'm saying, It could be anyone. We'll be sitting here waiting, and we'll watch someone coming down the road and before you know it they're here, and then maybe it turns out they're not the contact, they're the Gestapo.”
“Gestapo travel in packs, like - I don't know, hyenas. They don't ever go anywhere alone. He'll just be alone; just him himself.”
She nods at this, looking across the road towards the wide-open fields, the bare trees, the fading sky.
“I don't like it here,” she says.
 But there's nothing to be done...

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