Early on in Tim Finch’s hypnotic novel Peace Talks, the narrator — the diplomat Edvard Behrends, who facilitates international peace negotiations — reflects: ‘Peace talks settle into this repeating pattern after a while, a pattern like that of the floor carpets in places like this conference centre, in which a polygonal weave mesmerises the eye almost to a vanishing point.’ He is commenting on the lonely, relentless routine of the talks, walks, meals and drinks, as official negotiations inch forward, stall, reverse and proceed again over the course of months.
Alongside the diplomatic conference, another type of peace talk is underway: the meandering, intimate prose of the novel’s first-person narrative from Edvard to his wife Anna. The tone falls somewhere between letters, diary entries and pillow talk, taking in nothing and everything, as Edvard describes an awkward dinner, quotes a pleasing passage from a book, recalls an apt moment from a television programme, a funny encounter in the gents, or treads the course of a long-cherished memory. It is his monologue, although Anna’s interjections are occasionally imagined — brief italicised objections along the lines of: ‘I have my own book to read, Ed.’ Without giving too much away here, it becomes clear that Anna is dead, and moreover that she has died in brutal circumstances. This intimate talk on which we eavesdrop is Edvard’s means of trying to come to terms with this and find his own peace.
It’s revealing, in a book ostensibly about ‘talks’, that Finch pays attention to how little of consequence is actually said. In Edvard’s role of mediating between the two opposing sides in the peace conference, he speaks only really to issue instructions to break for lunch. He finds a parallel when he recalls sessions with a grief counsellor, noting that she ‘said nothing at all’ so that he ‘opened up’. Paradoxically, silence is shown to be vital for talk to be effective.
What we are reading in Edvard’s personal peace talk are the words that fill his own silence. Just as he begins a chapter ‘I have nothing to tell you’, Peace Talks is a feat of telling this nothing, of articulating the mundanity and penetrating the emptiness of grief. When the official peace deal is reached, Edvard pauses to wonder how. He notes: ‘Sheer exhaustion played a part. Sheer grinding tedium too.’ So, by the novel’s close, having witnessed the exhaustion and grinding tedium of his grief, masterfully rendered by Finch, we feel Edvard is closer to reaching his own personal peace too.
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