by Nick Harkaway
William Heinemann, 372pp, £16.99
The dual identity of superheroes is essential to the pleasure we derive from their god-like exploits: Batman, embodied by Bruce Wayne; Superman served by bumbling Clark Kent. The names are downbeat, allaying suspicion. They sharpen and deepen the deliciousness of the contrast between appearance and hidden power.
Cue Tigerman, in Nick Harkaway’s at times astonishing novel, a superhero with a difference. More earthbound than his predecessors, yet appropriately cat-like, he enjoys the blessing of multiple lives.
In truth, he’s a British infantry sergeant, decorated for bravery in Afghanistan and Iraq, a Basra veteran whose real name is Lester Ferris (not yet dubbed Tigerman), familiar with the atrocity of war, the reek of death. Now fatigued, though distinctly unspent, he has been posted to Mancreu, “a first-and-last isle”, once a crumb on the map and at best an international footnote, but lately a hell-hole of notoriety cursed with the pall of coming destruction.
Along its edges “mountains reared out of the restive water of the Arabian Sea”; its people an ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, live under the sovereignty of the NATO & Allied Protection Force (NatProMan). Ferris – de facto the British consul – finds himself rattling around the consulate, a “sprawling, haunted old house overlooking Beauville, the only town of any size”.
He has counterparts: Dirac the Frenchman, and bullish Kershaw, an American, backed by his own cut-throat militia. The Italians too have their lackey, and, in a makeshift research laboratory a beguiling Japanese scientist, Kaiko Inoue, tries to understand the equation – part seismic force, part toxic chemistry – that spells out the shape of the graph of the island’s countdown to apocalypse. Little wonder people are leaving. No wonder, too, that the international community is considering pre-empting the natural end of things by blowing Mancreu to oblivion.
Nick Harkaway’s third novel pushes the limits of plausibility – the just-possible end of the planet, no less; “Discharge Clouds” causing sickness, pollution, mutation. “The devil was at play. The brimstone oven beneath Mancreu cooked and boiled … a farmer was fired some thousands of feet into the air … falling like a burning angel.” Somehow Harkaway binds the elements of the story by offering questions, not solutions, doubt, not certainty, and by placing in the foreground Sergeant Ferris – Our Man in Mancreu (Graham Greene would have treasured this book) – an unlikely, flawed and lonely man of the world with a personal mission: to save a boy islander.
The boy is a mystery. Is he orphaned? Where does he live? Is he 12 or 13, or even younger? What is his name? He comes to the sergeant out of nowhere; he is an avid devourer of comics. He calls himself Robin (a homage to Batman?). “Possibly traumatised,” Ferris thinks. They have instant rapport. Affection follows. The boy is politely deaf when quizzed. The sergeant respects this, yet, in private, his curiosity and fatherly anxiety about the boy’s uncertain future will not be quelled.
Almost everything that happens in the narrative, derives from, or attaches to, or subverts, or supports this paternal love – but the sergeant lacks the essential practice: no wife, no children, no romantic or sexual history, parents dead. Mancreu is his cesspit of slow-burn decay.Harkaway makes of the mix – Death’s finger pressed to the button – something outlandishly larger than life, with a cast of characters written in Technicolor: the Witch, an American doctor, sassy, scalpel-sharp of tongue; the café owner, Shola, serving “gunpowder tea” while dressing like a pirate; White Raoul, the scrivener; Pechorin, the NatProMan double-dealer; and, most Hallowe’enish of all, Bad Jack, referred to in whispers, omnipresent and omniscient, for whom Shola is said to work.
When Ferris awakes one night, in a beery fug, to discover a tiger nuzzling his skin, it leaves its imprint, not least on the novel’s imagination. The boy, when informed, dubs his hero Tigerman, for by then they have together witnessed a tragedy – Shola’s death in a raid on the café. Sergeant Ferris, having stunned and maimed the assailants against all odds, is now looked on with awe.
Around this, Harkaway builds a novel filled with baggage, including a fleet of shady boats offshore doing international business, trafficking in drugs, slaving, pornography, even torture and rendition of political prisoners – all are rumoured. Who calls the shots? Who ordered the raid on Shola’s café? Was Shola its only intended victim?
The quest for the culprit, the quest to discover the boy’s identity and history, the running to earth of Bad Jack, each propels the narrative, thrusting Tigerman into action time and again – and, with each fresh exploit, closer to myth.
In the children’s comic book tradition, curiosity is satisfied, good trumps evil – romance is permissible and, of course, the finale is launched with an action-packed chase, followed inevitably by Zap! and Pow! erupting in exclamation marks in a classic blockbuster frenzy – before something seismic and fatally tragic occurs, and Harkaway plunges the narrative into temporary darkness.
Fear not. Love survives. It may even blossom in a sequel in a distinctly different genre to the comic-book tradition. Nick Harkaway has all the writerly skills to pull it off. His Tigerman lives because of his wit and daring intelligence, and his empathy. Words quiver whenever he writes.