Before donning bathing caps, flippers and goggles and plunging with energetic elegance into the deep pool of The Bastard, it’s well worth paddling our dainty or not-so-dainty feet in the side-pool of solid facts. Who is this Boris Yashmilye fellow anyway? What else has he written? Does he open doors for all women, or only for the pretty ones?
Yashmilye’s most celebrated novel remains his first, the strangely titled Flashes at Midnight (which I review here); still thought by many – myself included – to be the definitive text on the subject of political streaking (aka ‘Disrobing for Democracy’). A cheeky novel, to be sure, publicised with equal insolence. I recall another critic leaning over a dinner table two or three years ago to share with me the information that ‘in his considered opinion (which knowing him, was not all that considered) Boris Yashmilye was a total arse’. Though these are words I rarely employ myself, I had to agree that all I had seen of the young Bulgarian confirmed his theory. For the truth is that I have met Yashmilye only once, shortly after the publication of Flashes at Midnight, a book he choose to advertise by means of imitating its protagonists. Which is to say that Boris, mistaking me for a bloodless bookhound, bore his bare backside at me.
This would suggest something of a brutish character, which isn’t entirely true, though it would be fair to say that youthful extravagances got the better of Yashmilye following his early success. Both his second (The Musala Affair, a faintly pornographic spy thriller) and third (Nuts, Nuts, Nuts, a decent book ruined by the overuse of the word ‘metaphysical’) novels received a deserved critical pounding for a writer of his obvious talents. Rather like an older version of the Norwegian firebrand Edmund Ek, it looked as though Yashmilye had burnt himself out: that he was a one-trick pony, a single-swindle stallion, an lone-dupe donkey.
Then came Out Damned, a glorious fourth outing (reviewed here). The irreverance remained – it is, after all, the story of a fantastical expedition by a team of very small people across the face of an unfortunate acne-strewn teenager – but it was, on the whole, a much more consistent work than its limp predecessors. Yashmilye, at his best, combines sheer silliness with passages of a strangely moving power. That he manages to get away with this, particularly in Out Damned, might have something to do with the increasingly autobiographical nature of his work. Flashes at Midnight was clearly based on aspects of his own life, admittedly, but it was the facts rather than the emotions that fuelled the fiction. In Out Damned – and his new novel, The Bastard – we find Yashmilye facing up to the less immediately amusing sides of his own personality. Not only does he face up, but he sees the the examination through. Any fool of a writer can come up with a good idea: Yashmilye has turned himself into a man capable of seeing these good ideas through. This is what makes him one of our best contemporary novelists – a judgment which the publication of The Bastard seems unlikely to overturn.
As for the third question mooted above, I have it on vaguely good authority that, for all his bottom-baring, Yashmilye is a ‘gentleman’ – and will gladly open a door for any girl, whether she looks like Helen of Troy, or the loneliest warthog at the savannah school disco.