Book review: I am Radar, Reif Larsen

Just as in the work of Borges, Larsen's ideas become bigger than reality. Picture: Getty
Just as in the work of Borges, Larsen's ideas become bigger than reality. Picture: Getty
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REIF Larsen’s marionettes storm the labyrinths of postmodernism with exuberance and wit

I Am Radar

Reif Larsen

Harvill Secker, £18.99

About halfway through this ambitious and accomplished novel, the protagonist, Radar Radmanovic, has a revelation that may well be shared by the reader: “What had been going on in here? Electromagnetic pulse generators and flocks of headless robot birds?” We have already had the astonishing birth of Radar, a black baby born to Caucasian parents, and his transformation through “electro-enveloping” by a bizarre Norwegian group of avant-garde actors and quantum physicists; a librarian’s descent into drug-fuelled book-burning; Radar’s father, Kermin, an inveterate tinkerer with electronics, in a fight with a mechanical bear; Serbian puppeteers and a blackout in New Jersey.

Before the haunting conclusion of I Am Radar we will also have been taken to a one-off performance in front of Cambodia’s Pol Pot at the time of the Khmer Rouge, a plan to turn an orphan into an astrophysicist and a hidden library in the Congolese jungle. To say that Reif Larsen’s novel is capacious would be an understatement.

In a novel which is profoundly about interconnectedness, it is no surprise that the main engine of the plot is the ambiguous relationship between Radar and an enigmatic secret organisation, the Kirkenesferda. This is an alliance of Situationist artists and political activists obsessed with the uncertainty principle who stage their interventions at sites of genocide. It has created four “movements”: “the Poselok nuclear fission installation, outside Murmansk, in 1944” – witnessed by two Russian sailors and no-one else – “the Gåselandet Island Tsae Bomba show on fusion, in 1961, staged during the middle of the largest hydrogen bomb detonation in history; the disastrous Cambodian performance, in 1979” – featuring puppets with televisions in their faces, masks that can change – “and the abbreviated Sarajevo show on superstring theory, in the ruins of the National Library of Bosnia, in 1995”. It is “the most famous group we have never heard of and will never hear of again”. Somehow the bald, epileptic, obsessive-compulsive Radar is necessary for the fifth Kirkenesferda intervention, due to take part in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I Am Radar is full of semiotic systems: Morse code, L’Épée’s sign language for the deaf, text messages, Lokele drum-language and more. As with his debut novel, The Selected Works Of TS Spivet, the book is lavishly illustrated with telegrams, newspaper clippings, photographs, diagrams, scores, maps. It places I Am Radar intellectually in the same field as novels such as Tom McCarthy’s C, Will Self’s Umbrella and Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. Larsen has clearly read his Thomas Pynchon – the automatons seem a homage to Vaucanson’s duck in Mason & Dixon; some of the cadenzas on Nikola Tesla bring to mind his appearance in Against The Day. Stylistically, though, I Am Radar is rather different from these neo-Modernists, recalling the lightly handled exuberance of such writers as Ned Beauman, Chris Adrian (especially Gob’s Grief) and Nick Harkaway.

With such a superfluity of ideas and narratives, does I Am Radar add up to more than the sum of its enjoyable and curious parts? I would argue that it does. By an odd piece of readerly serendipity, I had just finished reading John Gray’s philosophically nimble The Soul Of The Marionette: A Short Enquiry Into Human Freedom, which takes as its starting point von Kleist’s essay On The Marionette Theatre. In it, von Kleist pursues the paradox that puppets are more graceful, and more free, than humans. Von Kleist is also referenced in I Am Radar, and, as mentioned, puppeteers are an important element in the novel. Throughout the novel, Larsen explores different concepts of liberty and freedom. Are we circumscribed by genetics? Are we, like the de Broglies in part four of the novel, bounded by national and family traditions? To what extent can parents determine the fate of their child? Is the monstrous freedom of the dictator – the freedom to do anything no matter how savage – any kind of freedom at all?

There is a connection, Larsen seems to imply, between freedom and reading. “Ideas,” Radar learns “can become bigger than reality.” There is a kind of plangent bibliophilia to the closing section: “They don’t actually believe the books are magic, do they?” Radar asks of Horeb, their Islamic guide. “They must believe in something,” he replies. “I think Americans believe in much stranger things, yes? Guns? Plastic surgery?” This bookish kind of postmodernism has a history – Larsen signals his predecessors neatly, in that the boat Radar sails on is called the Aleph, and the former monk building a new Alexandrian library in the heart of darkness is called Funes. Both refer to the work of Jorge Luis Borges: Funes was the man who could remember everything in the story Funes The Memorious; The Aleph is one of Borges’ best known fictions. In it, the “Aleph” is “a point in space that contains all other points” and is being used by the poet Daneri to write an exhaustive epic poem. A book, of course, is a kind of Aleph.

Although it deals with fairly serious matters, there is a sweetness in this book that probably lingers longer than the horrors. The tentative courtship of Radar and Ana Christina, the checkout assistant at the supermarket, is beautifully awkward. The love between the different members of the Danilovic family in the book’s Bosnian section outlives horrific change and even life itself. Larsen has wit, intelligence, empathy and imagination. What he turns his clear gifts to next promises to be fascinating.