Before the infamous and influential Single Cream, the Polish writer Max Zdowt published a novel called There’s Another Elephant. But you already knew this, no? Maybe so, but what you may not have known is that the novel attracted fierce criticism from many quarters. ‘My Elephant was besieged’, wrote Zdowt, later. And he was right. An army of warriors surrounded his elephant, harpoons raised, war-cry engaged and feet stamping with spirit. And yet only one warrior really went for the kill.
That warrior’s name was Laurence Reidegger. Not a great critic – as this story proves – but a man of majorly middling intelligence. Which is not to say that I think There’s Another Elephant is, actually, a work of genius; rather that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it in the manner in which Reidegger did.
‘Every chapter wastes at least ten pages,’ wrote our middling man: ‘take them away and what do you have? A glorified short story, if that’. He seemed perturbed. ‘What a mess!’ he exclaimed elsewhere – ‘Where is Zdowt going? Nowhere. This book is a road to nowhere’.
On the contrary, this book is very much a road to somewhere. It merely gets there in peculiar ways. As Reidegger was keen to point out, chapters begin in curious ways. They don’t follow on from the ends of other chapters. They don’t even jump ahead a bit, shift perspective a smidgen, or forge new tributaries that will, eventually, run into a central narrative river. Instead they offer lengthy and irrelevant lead-ins, introducing situations and characters that have no bearing whatsoever on the main story. Detective work will get you nowhere. These pages are truly – and quite deliberately – wasteful.
Did I say wasteful? I meant, of course, ‘useful’. So what if Zdowt indulges in a veritable stack of seemingly meaningless subplots? Can we criticise him for this? What he is doing, surely, is creating a new perspective on the central story. Not a carefully engineered one, perhaps, but a restless, wild, irreverent, diverting, misleading, aggravating, mysterious and maddening one. He reminds us, constantly, that the heroes of his story are just people; a minuscule segment of an elephantine whole. He imbues their every action with significance, then withdraws into the world again, as if to say ‘how significant was that, really?’ It can be a frustrating approach, but it’s no more a waste of time than life itself.
Of course, if I had a mature sense of irony, I might have ‘wasted’ the first four hundred words of this review on an unrelated subject, before settling, at last, on the subject of Zdowt. But then, how do you know that Zdowt was ever my central subject? Maybe it’s all been lead in to something else entirely. Maybe my story lies elsewhere. Maybe even here. Right here.