A new novel from Portobello Books is always welcome – a guarantee of inventive and original writing, with Caesarion being a fine example of the type of fictional innovation we can expect from this imprint.
In Caesarion, Tommy Wieringa has written an inventive, multi-layered novel, charting the childhood and youth of Ludwig (the Ceasarion of the title), an Egyptian born boy with distinctly unusual parents. Poor Ludwig is let down by all the adults in his life, all of whom consistently chase their own chimeras rather than nurturing the growing boy. Luwig’s pet-name, Caesarion, (Little Ceasar) comes from the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, also born in Alexandria. Apart from this, there are few classical references in the book – a good thing for readers like me who’s knowledge of the Ancient World is not as great as it should be.
Ludwig grows up in Egypt. He has an absent father and a mother who seems to dote on him a little too much. When he watches her put on make-up he finds her applying a little rouge to his own cheeks, moving on to polish his nails.
Marthe is generally an over-fond, but feckless mother who delights in her son until she is distracted by the attentions of any passing man offering gifts or the opportunity for a little adventure. Unable to make a life in Alexandria, Marthe takes Ludwig to Holland where they stay with relatives who live in a remote village situated in a flat, dull landscape. Inevitably Marthe soon departs for a lengthy trip elsewhere, not saying when she will return.
Ludwig’s uncle digs an old scooter out of the garage and the young Ludwig travels out along the canal banks on lonely expeditions. Some time later, mother returns with news that she has decided that they will travel to England to live in Alburgh (which appears to be the real-life town of Aldeburgh) where they buy a house on a crumbling cliff from a man who promises to maintain his own sea-wall to prevent the North Sea eating away at the foundations of their new home (he will succeed where everyone else has failed).
We lived at the edge of the world and could fall off at any moment. We knew that when we moved in. That the house bore a risk. That although Warren was building a line of defense, there were unknown factors . . . we didn’t know that in the month before we arrived, five meters of hillside had been lost.
Holland was flat but with a landscape threatened by encroaching sea. At Alburgh the sea threatens to undermine rather than flood, but with equally disastrous results – a symbolic use of landscape which bears further reflection perhaps.
Ludwig continues his piano studies and works at the local pub as piano-man, playing every type of music. The mysterious coastline with its lost villages and submerged church towers with mythically tolling bells exerts its strange influence. He joins the local rugby team, supposedly to get away from the feminisation forced on him as a child by his doting mother.
Soon after Ludwig’s 15th birthday a post card from South America arrives for him from his long-lost father. On the back it contains only two words – “love me”.
The boy grows, and though a series of coincidences discovers that his mother had a highly disreputable past in the seamier side of the film industry with the name Eve LeSage. Tommy Wieringa describes the shock a boy must feel on seeing a pornographic film featuring his mother -
I went outside like a narcotized man . . . the earth might open up and swallow me, I would be grateful. Eve LeSage, Marthe Unger. Porn star. My history was in need of rewriting. All my life I had been walking down the street with a bell around my neck. I bore the brand of shame. The rumours would seep through the walls like moisture, they would whisper behind my back, the suffering would have a name.
The house cannot last forever on its fast-disintegrating cliff and Ludwig’ mother departs for America leaving Ludwig to fend for himself as a lodger with the man who sold the ill-fated house to them.
Eventually Ludwig graduates from college and follows his mother to Los Angeles, where his mother has resumed her earlier career. But he now has a powerful desire to search for his his long-lost father, leading him onto the far horizons of the Panamanian jungle.
This is a coming of age book, Ludwig’s childhood and adolescence leading to an adult fulfilment that could not be forseen at the start of the story. The story is intricate and operates on many levels – the inner life of a young man who somehow survives grave psychological mistreatment and makes a life for himself.
The canvas is vast – almost too vast, with locations including Egypt, Holland, England, Los Angeles, Germany, Panama. This gives a slight air of literary hyper-activity to the book with a little too much leaping around from one culture to another. The long section set in Alburgh captures the East Anglian landscape and culture perfectly – clearly Tommy Wieringa knows this area well with its grey seas and big skies. It somehow seems strange to be engrossed in Ludwig’s life in Alburgh and then within a few pages find him in the middle of the Los Angeles porn industry.
In a way, the book covers a little too much ground and for example, Ludwig’s search for his father sseems to have been added onto the end of the book as an appendix and takes the reader off into yet another set of locations. The story of Ludwig’s childhood and adolescence may have been enough for one volume and made the book rather more a cohesive whole with a more consistent atmosphere and tone throughout.
Having said that, this is a rich and engrossing read – most importantly an enjoyable read containing a wholly original set of stories which draw the reader on through its pages. Caesarion marks Tommy Wieringa out as a fine writer, capable of managing all these various complex themes in one novel.
I am not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the translation from the Dutch made by Sam Garrett but I get every impression that it is extremely good, providing Ludwig with a very believable voice.