Deep in the forest’s mysteries: The Cloven, by Brian Catling, reviewed

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

Brian Catling’s great trilogy takes its title from The Vorrh, his first volume. This final book fulfills all the promises of the first two. It has a place beside such modern masters of the imagination as E.R. Eddison, Tolkien or Peake, and it is as completely unlike them as those three-deckers are of each other.

Again we visit the Vorrh, the endless forest based on Raymond Roussel’s in Impressions of Africa. Built on its outskirts, Essenwald, a crumbling colonial city, exists because of the timber it cuts with the labour of ‘the Erstwhile’, the forest’s enslaved, semi-human inhabitants. Every day they are taken in to the gloomy green vastness to cut, trim and bring back timber on the narrow-gauge steam train whose tracks go as deep into the Vorrh as the loggers dare drive.

Some citizens have grown rich, building massive baroque mansions in Essenwald, thanks to the fascinating forest where Hebraic and Christian images abound. Most people have learned to respect the source of their livelihood. For the Vorrh is sentient, perhaps even more than the Erstwhile, who might be the fallen angels once guarding Eden. Some believe that Eden still lies at the heart of the Vorrh and at its centre can be found the Tree of Knowledge. Certain people will always be drawn in by the forest’s myths and mysteries. All kinds of natural terrors lie there too.

Various characters have come to live at the forest’s edge, most of them in Essenwald or its delta. A few previous visitors have moved far away. Even some of the Erstwhile have found asylum in the outside world, where they exist in various stages of apparent brutishness. Nicholas, perhaps the most human and articulate of them, lives in Bethlem Royal mental hospital and does his best to communicate, but most of his cultural references derive from BBC radio’s Just a Minute or from his earlier life with William Blake, ‘my ol’ man’, who rescued him from the Thames mud. His chief visitor is Hector, a German psychologist, who lives in a miserable block of flats on uneasy terms with a gang of Jewish teens, a conservative rabbi and a half-crazy harridan who thinks the flats could be haunted by Jack the Ripper.

Catling confronts his concerns with irony, wit and sometimes straightforward comedy, as when poor, doomed Father Timothy meets a rather thick seraph. For some reason I’m reminded of the mildly anti-clerical comedy of T.H.White, which is full of innocent, priestly misunderstandings. Elsewhere, the humour is grimmer, tending to the grotesque, but never heavy-handed. And in a novel where you come to believe in a man fashioned into a bow and then into two living totems before he achieves his ultimate destiny, there is plenty of grotesque.

In Essenwald, Ishmael, the former Cyclops, who has been rescued from execution by a grimly loyal Nebsuel, escapes into the threatening forest, helped by his former nurses, two innocent Bakelite robots utterly bewildered by the natural world. Meanwhile, Ghertrude, Ishmael’s ex-lover (whom he unforgivingly betrayed), mourns for her stolen baby with her friend Cyrena, who is in love with a suicidal Boer genius, a man who seems to know more about the Vorrh than most and who has been plagiarised by Maeterlinck. In general, the forest’s sentience gives visitors amnesia. Only the Erstwhile are in some ways completely immune, but they are scarcely individuals.

When the Erstwhile refuse to continue their labours, the brutal Sergeant Wirth and his horrible helpers concoct a disgusting means of getting them back to work. As the Nazis gain power in Europe, various members of the SS arrive with a plan to extend the logging train through the entire forest and bring the whole continent under their dominion. Soon the train is full of German soldiers. Hoss, the black engine driver, is ordered to take his machine in deeper. His terror and his intelligence are ignored, with terrible consequences for all.

Myth and mysticism are pervasive. Catling creates a psychic landcape worthy of early J.G. Ballard. The influence of Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative, 1966) is apparent, at least as much as it was in Kubrick’s 2001, and beautifully informs the conclusion. As in Catling’s earlier volumes, real historical figures are brought in, performing a serious intellectual function and adding to this humane novel’s admirable intricacies. All Catling’s characters have a meaningful story; and all their stories drive the plot relentlessly towards its breathtaking, unexpected and elegant conclusion.

As with Dickens, nothing is wasted, and every element moves the novel to a subtle and perfect resolution. The Vorrh trilogy really has it all: great characters, outstanding writing, an enjoyable plot, surprises galore and something to think about. I couldn’t stop reading.

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