Part of the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012 Series.
That Michael Frayn can deliver a well-turned farce should come as no surprise. That he should do so whilst reflecting on the nature of the form itself and on the intimately related issues of identity and causality whilst never ceasing to be amusing is something one must seriously admire. The great, the good, and the not-so-good are gathering on the balmy Greek island of Skios for the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual Great European House Party: an event ostensibly aimed at promoting so-called European values of culture and cooperation. The House Party always ends with a distinguished guest lecturer. This year that lecturer has been chosen by ambitious PA Nikki Hook. (‘Discreetly tanned, discreetly blonde, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.’)
There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there had always been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.
This year that lecturer is the esteemed and influential science administrator and expert in scientometrics Dr Norman Wilfred, a man with very mixed feelings about the rigmarole of the lecture circuit, and slightly less mixed feelings about the perks of said circuit. That impersonation and living by one’s wits will be at the heart of Skios is signalled by the bowl in the guest lecturers’ quarters decorated with an image of Odysseus landing on the island disguised as an itinerant knife-grinder. Who, precisely, is impersonating whom, and for what purpose, isn’t entirely straightforward, but the shiftless and incorrigible chameleon at the centre is one rather Ripley-like Oliver Fox, supposedly on his way to a borrowed villa for a dalliance with a married woman. Goodness, might Wilfred and Fox have similar cases? Might they be on the same flight? Might Nikki, who dreams of the Directorship of the Foundation and an attractive and esteemed lecturer, have gone to the airport without a photograph of the man she intends to meet? Well,
She watched him approach. He was still smiling. She was still smiling herself, she realised.
‘Dr Wilfred?’ she said.
‘I cannot tell a lie,’ said Oliver. No – said Dr Wilfred.
And so it begins. The premise is ridiculous. We know it’s ridiculous, Frayn knows it’s ridiculous. Its very absurdity is part, firstly, of the form of farce and, secondly, and more interestingly, part of Frayn’s reflection on the form of farce and the contingencies of human interaction. It’s hard to say quite how he does this without giving some crucial plot points away. In Skios characters have their sense of identity shaped by others’ expectations of them, who are, in turn, shaped by yet more expectations and apparent obligations in an endless reciprocal web of projected concerns. When one is already an impostor, that relationship can only unbalance one’s identity even further. As things become ever more, well, farcical, Frayn reveals everyone to be, in some sense, something of an impostor, including the Foundation itself. What is striking is how self-interested everyone is, whilst still being so affected by others’ opinions as to their worth and identity.
Wilfred and Fox are polar opposites: one the man of science, committed to a strict brand of determinism, the other so unpredictable in his actions as to verge on the pathological. Wilfred doesn’t just believe in science’s capacity to unearth the chains of cause and effect underlying everything, he is also professionally committed to its measured management. It is this issue of the nature of one event’s relationship to another that lies at the heart of farce, and Frayn plays each character’s approach to life off the other, culminating in something of a step back and reflection on the form itself. Thus the absurdity of the initial premise plays into this reflection and is ultimately vindicated by the clear self-awareness of the form Frayn is working in. It is this aspect, more than any other, I suspect, that led to Skios’ Booker longlisting.
So Frayn’s novel is fundamentally a consideration of naming and fate – remember that image of Odysseus? – all wrapped up in a completely ridiculous, but pretty enjoyable, comedy of errors. The two Greek taxi drivers named Spiros and Stavros who are always mistaken for one another should give some indication of the tone. Skios is a well-crafted and fast-paced philosophical romp around a sun-drenched island populated with self-interested characters who see what they want to see, right to the end.