‘Notes and Ideas and Questions for a Review of Miles Allinson’s “Fever of Animals”,’ by Adam Ouston


Image courtesy of Scribe.

1. Miles Allinson frames the narrative of his twenty-something journey through Europe with a present-day (and now thirty-something) search for the surrealist-turned-realist painter Emil Bafdescu. Forges a link between his quest for the artist (who went walking with his dog in a Romanian forest in 1967 and was never seen again) and his failed relationship with Alice, whom he seems to be, in a round about way, stalking. He’s trying to write a book about Bafdescu, but all he has is a series of notes that aren’t coming together. He wants to write a book. He is writing a book. Did the book get written? What is this thing I’m holding?

2. A web search for Emil Bafdescu reveals nothing. Conclude two things: a) Bafdescu never existed, and is a fiction of the author’s imagination; or b) he was so peripheral that not even the internet has bothered with him. I suppose the latter happens from time to time. In any case, given both are possible, questions remain: a) Did Bafdescu even exist to begin with? b) Is the author/narrator/backpacker, Miles Allinson, having us on? c) Does it matter?

3. I will refer to both the author and the narrator as Miles because who knows where one ends and the other begins? In fact, the narrating voice is an amalgam of a variety of speakers: Miles Allinson, ‘Miles Allinson’, Emil Bafdescu, and Alice (who now lives in Berlin wedded to the elusive Wido). Mode of narration switches from first- to third-person; on occasion Miles addresses himself directly; and there’s a passage in which Alice narrates in first-person. Dismantling authorship, authority, authenticity (see 12 re: reproductions).

4. Prefer the passages detailing Miles’s search for the vanished painter (Part Two of the novel) over his travelogues. The latter seem often to lack thrust, and at one point verge on travel/backpacking memoir. Without the ingenious element of the vanished surrealist—which is, deservedly, the main hook—Miles’ debut might have been another slim volume in the fattening cohort of twenty-/thirty-somethings writing about their lives as though they matter.

It’s the anti-youth memoir taking shelter from the storm of youth memoirs currently flashing in the literary pan.

Find myself nodding along: This could be me, I’ve visited these places, I think I stayed in that hostel. More interestingly: What is he doing with biography, especially the sort of biography his book will undoubtedly rub shoulders with? Essentially, Miles tells us that he has nothing to say (see 7 re: failure): he’s young; he admits to having done very little with his life to this point; he doesn’t know what he’s doing traipsing around Europe looking for an unknown painter and an ex-girlfriend. One gets the impression he’s unlikely to have a Eureka moment. It’s the anti-youth memoir taking shelter from the storm of youth memoirs currently flashing in the literary pan. A good sign.

5. In any case, I can’t really accuse him of prattling on about himself because he throws into question exactly who he is, what he’s saying, and why any of it really matters. (But I read on because … well because something profound is happening, but I don’t really know what it is.) Is he Miles Allinson? Or is he Emil Bafdescu reincarnated or returned from his time warp/space junket? Or is Emil Bafdescu Miles Allinson? Has our narrator been flung into history and performed the haunted-forest vanishing act himself? The final scene may give a clue – or it may be just a wild goose chase. At one point he notes that Alice “might be two people at once – two alternating women who do not even know each other”, a nod perhaps towards the many faces of his narrator(s). And in another episode, concerning the (translated) autobiography of Bafdescu, he quotes: “‘Sometimes it happened that I was no longer myself.’” These games are compelling and clearly put. I want to find what Miles wants to find. Am I now embroiled in the whole thing?

6. The central question of the narrative seems to be: Why did the painter Emil Bafdescu turn away from surrealism? So, we have a mystery of sorts, because not only did he turn away from surrealism, he also vanished into thin air in a forest. Therefore we have three mysteries that are, seemingly, connected: a) Why the turn away from surrealism; b) Where the fuck did he go?; and c) What is the link?

7. Miles is playing games with time. It pays the reader to have their wits about them. It’s 2013; it’s 2008; it’s sometime in the forties; it’s 1967; it’s 2007. I don’t know where I am. Miles doesn’t know where he is. No one knows where Bafdescu is. What’s going on?

It’s cool to say The Cringe is dead or backward or you’re-just-not-looking-hard-enough. Which probably means it’s still relevant.

8. Also culture games: As I read, I’m asking myself, has Bafdescu turned into Allinson? Has he reappeared sixty-odd years in the future as a Melbourne novelist? Is the Romanian forest in which he disappeared somehow comparable to present-day Fitzroy? We are, after all, talking about the fringes of civilisation. The wilderness in which you find wild animals. In other words, not Central Europe. It’s a post-colonial self-consciousness; Australia as beyond the boundaries of Continental Civilisation. No country for invisible men. Just when we thought cultural cringe was passé, Miles reminds us that it’s still worthwhile investigating. It’s cool to say The Cringe is dead or backward or you’re-just-not-looking-hard-enough. Which probably means it’s still relevant (see 15).

9. Narrative voice #1: Casual, so self-deprecating that I literally start yelling at him. Okay, it is a story about failure. Or perhaps: failure is a key theme and motif. But the list of failures—not to mention the general tone of defeat—is an excruciatingly drawn-out affair: His father’s health fails; his relationship with Alice fails; he fails to become a painter; it’s looking likely that his search for Bafdescu will fail; he (seemingly) fails to protect Alice in Venice (and therefore fails to ‘be a man’); he doesn’t appear to be sure about anything; he admits that he knows nothing; he doesn’t know why he’s chasing down this elusive artist; he’s not even sure about what he is writing, both its merit and its nature (even in the bloody Acknowledgements he’s still hedging his bets). The book itself opens with, “Or maybe, after all, it should begin on the plane”; just as he isn’t sure about anything else, he isn’t sure where to begin the narrative itself (see 16 re: the absence of authority). It’s all shrugging shoulders and sighing into one’s navel, which at times becomes repetitive and grating. I mean, he’s written a book, so he must reckon he has something to say. In any case, the beauty of all this huffing and puffing is that the ‘hero’ doesn’t have to succeed and still the book will be deemed a success because failure’s the main theme of the book. Clever…

At the same time, however, he has staunch ideas about Art (capital A). Some very strong and seemingly out-of-character opinions come blasting through the fug of I-don’t-knows – such as “all painting is first and foremost a demonstration of the vocabulary of painting”. In another episode, when passing a gallery that had rejected his paintings, he notes, “if you thought I couldn’t paint then all you had to do was go in there and then you would really see something.” And elsewhere he laments that the language of surrealism “has been co-opted by talentless ‘creatives’ in the advertising industry.” One gets the sense, in these instances, of the ‘author’ poking his head through the maelstrom of Mileses.

10. Narrative voice #2: Syntax. The almost colloquial voice means Miles can get away with sentences such as:

“Yes, I imagine so, Luisa says (this is her name, Luisa, which I learn at some point – we introduce ourselves), and she asks what my interest is in the photo of Luca that she has seen me looking so intently at and taking my own photos of.”

There are also, having said that, some quality turns of phrase: “I imagine the day slowly asserting itself around her”; “Outside, motionless, a flock of almost-yellow sheep, two black dogs, and a shepherd watch us pass – the train clatters by like a single thought uniting them all”; and “Surrealism had run its course. You have to grow up eventually, I guess. Death is real. Ordinary life is too powerful.” There is some arresting writing here, but often it yields to or is truncated by the plottiness of motion (the tyranny of the travel memoir).

Fever of Animals is essentially—like so many good books—a novel of ideas scaffolded by a weird mystery.

The flip side of this is that the casual, seemingly style-less language enables Miles to entertain his ideas, and to make them compelling, without being off-putting. The book is filled with enticing notions, the impossibility of language defining anything (particularly a life) being one of them (see 17). The prose could easily have slipped into some ‘higher’, more academic speak, especially in Part Two where he focuses on his search for Bafdescu. But Miles avoids this. One of the book’s major successes is the way ideas about identity, culture, authority, authorship, masculinity and love emerge subtly and (mostly) without pretence. Fever of Animals is essentially—like so many good books—a novel of ideas scaffolded by a weird mystery. It speaks to the intelligence of the novel (and the writer) that it is so accessible while retaining its high-minded (in a good way) playfulness. His easily digestible prose style makes Miles an entertaining and intriguing narrator/storyteller.

11. Okay, but who is the narrator? Who is the artist? More central questions.

12. Which reminds me: There’s something going on here about centres in general. They are lacking. The question, “Where is my centre?” appears several times. Miles, obviously, is in search of one – or trying to develop a life philosophy whereby he doesn’t need one. Maybe the searching is enough. Makes me think: Australia. The reproductions of England. Obsessed with its own identity. Unsure of where it fits. Remote. In the wilderness. Is Miles a stand-in for the culture he seems to loathe?

13. He finds Bafdescu’s home in Bucharest (the half-rhyme with ‘book’ is tempting), which was destroyed in an earthquake, then rebuilt, then destroyed again in another earthquake, then rebuilt, and now it’s just a bar with Heineken-sponsored furniture. (Oh yeah, throughout the book Miles drinks a lot. Most of the time he’s either drunk, hungover or going out for beer. Why? Is he punning on ‘wasted youth’? Is he trying to escape something?) There’s an obsession with reproductions, photocopies, photos of reproductions – all of which suggest a drift away from an original. In fact, the only original in the entire book is a Bafdescu painting that hangs in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne. But even this painting is displaced. All the ‘evidence’ he has of Bafdescu’s existence comes from copies of copies and translated texts – paid for, no less, through an inheritance Miles receives following the death of his own father.

14. In any case, this might be a good time to note: Europe is also a cultural wasteland, now overrun by tourists, seeming to exist only for them. It has itself vanished into a forest of selfie-sticks. Here’s the Mona Lisa. They say she might be a fake and the real one is in the basement or has, in fact, been lost. The Eiffel Tower is now a replica of the postcard version of itself. Venice—where one of the book’s most important scenes takes place—is even worse. European art has been co-opted by the tourist boards and ministries of culture in every country. It might now be better to stay at home. Which is all to say that most of Europe—the popular destinations anyway—has become largely a caricature of itself, the originals having been long buried and forgotten. Is this what Miles means by Bafdescu’s disappearance? Is he, like many Aussies before him (see 16), searching for the Europe we’ve seen on the telly?

15. The unfortunate thing (for Miles, anyway) is that not only will Europe be at odds with his expectations but he doesn’t like Australia either: “I don’t know why Australia is so backward” and “Why are Australians so hopeless?” In his panting search for surrealism, Miles seems to be thumbing his nose at “dull realism” (Miles’s term), and it isn’t much of a stretch to assume he’s looking (even if it’s sideways) at the culture of his homeland. But so did the men in whose footsteps he is plodding – they didn’t particularly like their own homeland either. This is not a sin. I enjoy reading these straightforward swipes at Australia. It’s hardly done enough, unless it’s the banal pre-approved chiding of, say, our politicians or sportsmen or chauvinists or racists. Although Miles doesn’t go into a lot of detail in these instances, by keeping them in mind while absorbing the whole narrative, I get a sense of what he might be on about. This dissatisfaction with ‘drab home’ simmers beneath the surface and only occasionally breaks through. It is the catalyst for art, which can hardly be a bad thing. The fact that an Australian publisher has published this book is a sure sign, however, that all is not lost! It’s heartening to see something so rich and intelligent being published in Australia. Scribe ought to be congratulated. As well as, of course, Miles himself.

16. It’s a story of absent fathers. Lamenting the death of his own father, Miles is in search of a tradition. Just about every cultural reference comes from Europe or America. People he meets look like Hollywood actors (Willem Defoe, Bruce Willis, Woody Allen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Katherine Hepburn and Sean Young). The music playing in the background is American pop. The beers are European. Even back in Australia he talks with Alice about the lauded French post-structuralists. (His casual tone allows him a reference to Lacan without a peep from the pretence police.) There’s also a reference to Proust’s Swann’s Way. Much of the travel writing smacks dangerously of W.G. Sebald (dangerously because Sebald is head and shoulders and arms and legs above everyone), particularly the diary section in Part Two: “I am writing this from the little desk I have pushed into the corner, near the window”; “The sepia wash of nostalgia tinges everything”; “Looking at these men and women, I cannot help but feel that this is a dying civilisation, a civilisation squatting in the ruins of an older and far grander one to which every link, save the geographic, has been severed.” The landscape is bleak, as is the narrator’s inner, existential terrain. There’s the concerted effort to convey internal and external decay.

Cursing the chaos of Europe. Cursing dull home. Hating being part of the procession.

I get the impression—from Miles—that he’s the first Aussie to go in search of civilisation, history, tradition in Europe. But just as every painting is a vocabulary of painting, there’s also a vocabulary of this kind of narrative. Which is not so much a failing on his part but evidence of a lack of a sense of his Australian cultural heritage. There are loads of Australian artists whose narratives prefigure Miles’. To name a few: Martin Boyd, Charmian Clift, George Johnston, Jeffery Smart, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Robert Dessaix, Shirley Hazzard, Patrick White, Christos Tsiolkas. All lost. All schlepping through Europe with their textbooks open matching the sights with the black-and-white images. None of them satisfied with their finds. Each standing beside their bags at the train station, waiting for trains that may or may not come. Cursing the chaos of Europe. Cursing dull home. Hating being part of the procession. The absence of these writers from Miles’ narrative, this absence of ‘fathers’, equates also with an absence of authority and direction, which is echoed in the hesitancy of the narrative voice and the shape-shifting of the narrator itself. At one point he even asks himself (or the reader): “Do I have the right to say: this is what is happening now?”

17. Language: The book begins with the extinction of a language, the Eyak language (which is/was real, in case you’re wondering). It is language that separates Miles from Europe and accounts for all the translations he’s working with. And it is language that separates us from the animals, that allowed us to separate ourselves (in our own minds, at least) from the animals. So Miles hears a girl say in a Berlin bar. A girl he could have slept with but, because he starts thinking about death and his father and surrealism, doesn’t. Throughout Fever of Animals, language reaches out for but doesn’t quite touch. Everything seems indescribable: his attraction towards Bafdescu; what went wrong with Alice; what exactly he’s looking for. Words do often fail him. The translations themselves, Bafdescu’s autobiography, the copies of copies and photographs of photographs, work as metaphors for the distance that exists between people and things, and for language’s paltry attempts to bring them together.

Adam Ouston is a writer living in Hobart, Tasmania. His work has appeared in places such as The Canary Press, Southerly, Island Magazine, Voiceworks, Crikey, The Review of Australian Fiction, and the 2014 Transportation anthology. He is the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award for his manuscript The Party.