I’m late to this book, having only recently acquired the electronic device on which to read it. It’s a real curiosity; a hotchpotch of themes and ideas, as was suggested in a posting above, drawn together in a way that is not always entirely cohesive or convincing, but which nevertheless produces a text containing much of interest. A case, perhaps, of the whole being rather less than the sum of its constituent parts, but a book which one reads in the hope of gleaning the odd nugget of insight and illumination, as well as for the simple pleasure of enjoying the story.
It has been said on these boards, I think by David Barrett, that Patrice Chaplin’s work divides into two categories – works of biography that contain a component of fiction, and works of fiction that contain a component of biography. Mr Lazarus
undoubtedly falls into the latter category, whilst her previous three books on similar themes – Happy Hour
, City of Secrets
and The Portal
– belong to the former. In all of these cases, trying to ascertain where reliable memoire ends and fiction starts, and vice versa, is not an easy task, particularly for those of us with only a cursory knowledge of the detail of the author’s life, and in the case of this latest book it was especially difficult.
In terms of the way in which this ostensibly fictional story of Vicky – the English girl in love with a mysterious, and elusive violinist, and obsessed with strange events a century previously at Perpignan railway station – continues and expands upon themes raised in the previous works referred to above, then subjects such as portals, Mount Canigou, F-sharp sustained, Rennes le Chateau and Perillos all feature here, along with a new emphasis on red roses and Celtic crosses.
What to make of it all, I’m not too sure. In a way, I rather wish I had read it without knowing anything at all of the author or her previous works, for as a straight piece of narrative it works perfectly well, telling a story that is at times compelling and with a likeable central character, and understandable enough, for all the eccentricity of some of its subject matter. The problem I found is that one is constantly trying to divine where the line between truth and fiction really lies, and that one frequently finds oneself trying to locate people from the other books. Was that a reference to Jose Tarres? Was that one to Lucia Stilman? Is this character supposed to be Liliane from The Portal
? Who is the beautiful girl waiting at Perpignan station? And more than anything else, how much of Patrice is in the character of Vicky? These are the questions that kept recurring in my head as I read the book.
Inevitably, the sections referring to Sauniere, priest of Rennes le Chateau, were of much interest. The story of raising the dead from their coffins at Perpignan station, as related to Vicky by an elderly railwayman, has already been referred to here, and the extract in question is worth quoting.
Winter 1890 and late night: a priest arrived by horse and carriage, a calèche they called it in those days. He waited on the platform and in came the train from Germany. Two men got off at the far end, carrying a coffin. It was cold and a mountain wind got up. The coffin was kept on the platform, guarded by the two men, and the railway staff thought they were family members in mourning. They thought the priest was there to give final rites, take the corpse for burial and comfort the family, so they stayed a polite distance away. The priest sang out incantations and lifted his hands, a bell was rung and the coffin opened all by itself and the corpse sat straight up … The figure, obviously alive, screamed out. The priest bent down and made further ritual signs and dabbed the man’s head with liquid. Then he was lifted from the coffin by the two men and wrapped in a shroud and carried away to the calèche. The coffin was closed up and taken off by the calèche driver. The priest took the last train to Couixa [Couiza], which was just coming in.
(Kindle Loc. Ref. 1068/1074)
Apparently this happened on several occasions, with the coffins coming from all parts, including from as far away as Belgrade, but always met by the same priest, Sauniere. On one occasion, we are told, the corpse in the coffin appeared to have been dead for rather longer than the others, and as a consequence took longer to re-animate.
Further on in the book, we learn some further interesting details about these alleged events. Apparently, so Vicky’s character is told, these trains bearing their coffins that were met and performed upon by Sauniere, all came to Perpignan during one specific period in 1890 – between 31st October and 15th November, around the time of Samhain, the Celtic New Year.
This is, as one character says, “The night when the souls are resurrected. The time between life and the dead” (Loc. 2159), also referred to as “The ancient Celtic festival of the dead when the sun reaches seven degrees Scorpio in conjunction with the moon rising” (Loc. 2163). For apparently, “They needed the exact crossing at seven degrees to bring back the dead” (Loc. 2769).
To any rational mind, the idea of raising the dead is, of course, completely absurd, but whilst I didn’t believe for a moment that this story might be true, one is left wondering where it comes from, and what true meaning might lie behind it. Did somebody once tell Patrice this story; did she invent it or merely embellish it; is it in some way allegorical? I obviously have no answers to this, although one can’t help but notice that there are strong echoes here of current theories about Sauniere’s involvement in mortuary rituals and a cult of the dead. Would it be too cynical, and cruel, of one to imagine that this unexpected plot development in the fourth book in the RLC / Girona / Canigou quartet, as it were, has been introduced to capitalise upon this new direction in research into Sauniere’s activities? If not, then where does the idea come from, and why is it being introduced now into Patrice’s narrative?
Certainly, reference is made to a cult behind these morbid and distasteful activities – “They deal with the dead. They direct the dead onto the right paths to the world of spirit. For that cult the after-death is the important part.” (Loc. 1102)
As for why Perpignan is significant as a location, then those of us who have read Patrice’s other books on this topic will not be surprised to hear someone tell the character of Vicky that it is because of the nearby mountain of Canigou – “That mountain … The sacred mountain. The Catalans here and in Spain worship it. At the top there’s something curious. They say it’s a gap in the atmosphere and that once you pass through it you’re invisible and in another time.” (Loc. 1093/1097).
And it is on Canigou that the book reaches its dreamy conclusion, as the heroine seeks to experience the portal for herself, just as she also seemingly encounters a reanimated spirit in the form of the violinist for whom she has the most ardent attraction. To say more about this would be to spoil the story for those who have not yet read it, and might be planning to, but it would also require an analysis of the text of which I’m not sure I’m capable from only one reading, as much of this part of the book is hard to absorb and fully understand on first sight. This is, as I said above, a curious and at times difficult book to fully comprehend.
As to why the deserted village of Perillos might be significant in this book, a place that also featured in The Portal
, this is perhaps less immediately apparent, albeit legends of this place as some kind of crossing point from one world to another clearly fit quite neatly into the book’s overall thesis. There is sufficient material on Perillos, both here, and in The Portal
for this to be worthy of a discussion of its own some time in a different, rarely visited part of the Forum. But it’s an interesting place, somewhat tainted perhaps by its association with the research activities of some, to put it as tactfully as possible, and Patrice’s thoughts on this, and her impressions of this desolately beautiful place would certainly be worth discussing further.
To conclude, this is, without question, a most curious book that sits a little uneasily beside some of the author’s other work. Some of the material on the Knights Templar seems highly questionable, even to one who knows little about them, and some is plain wrong – Godfrey was not King when those first nine knights arrived in Jerusalem, Baldwin II was – as is some of the Rennes le Chateau backstory, and there is an overall lack of narrative cohesion that makes the account somewhat confused at times. It would most assuredly have benefitted from some further editing. I finished it with a feeling of not being entirely sure what I had just read. And some of the detail appears quite bizarre, even for its genre. And yet, Patrice Chaplin is such a talented writer, with a real gift for conveying the cadences and essences of a place, thanks to her ability to write simple, elegant prose, there is always much reward to be found in her books, and this is no exception. She possess a wonderful turn of phrase, whether in referring to “hate at first sight”, or describing “a draught at the back of her legs like a dog’s breath”. More than anything else, I felt, the book contains at its heart a superbly, and subtly drawn central character, with whom I, the reader, felt much empathy. I dare say there is an awful lot of Patrice in the character of Vicky, and in her experiences, such as being in abusive relationships, and some of what one read was quite painful and heart-rending, whilst at other times one delighted in Vicky’s irrepressible personality, however scarred by love she may have been, and her powerful desire to find the answers she was looking for. As a consequence, this made one warm to the character, and to the author.
Put simply, Mr Lazarus
is an intriguing curiosity of a book, and for all one’s reservations, I’m pleased to have read it.