The Antonym of Melancholy and The Fertile Crescent
by Democritus Minimus Natu
Reading like a cross between Tristram Shandy and The White Goddess, these post-post-modern novels follow the picaresque misadventures of Arbuthnot, as he struggles, like The Good Soldier Svejk, against the manageocratic madness that has engulfed what was once a cradle of liberty, and turned it into an Absurdistan such that Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera would instantly recognise as a bizarre facsimile of Eastern Europe before 1989.
Part Lewis Carroll gone right through the looking glass, part satire on the incompetence and gobbledegook of mismanagement in Scottish further education (but it could be any other corporate shambles anywhere else in these benighted islands), part Platonic dialogue on the meaning of life, religion, science, the universe and more or less everything else, part shaggy dog story (comprising unimaginable and frankly alarming word-play), part exploration of the aftershocks of the gender-quake, part sustained advertisement for Brasso, part revelation of the Grail and the Templars to put Dan Brown to shame, in the end these novels are a love letter to writing itself, as the poetic (if rather baffled) soul of Arbuthnot finds strange (and probably badly misguided) solace in visions of the Sphinx, and recognition of the sonnet as the most perfect of all literary forms.
The Antonym of Melancholy (2005) ISBN 0 9550632 0 5; price £20, plus p&p (includes CD), and The Fertile Crescent (2007) ISBN 0-9550632-1-3 available direct from email@example.com, www.quinceyriddle.co.uk/democrituspage.htm and Amazon.
We eagerly look forward to further publications from this stable.
Review of The Antonym of Melancholy, by Dr De Ath
'The Antonym of Melancholy'
By Democritus Minimus Natu (aka: Professor Arbuthnot?).
My first encounter with Arbuthnot, some twenty-five years ago, was as surreal as some aspects of the novel he has just published. It took place in the billiards room of a hotel which had been modelled by the Chinese somewhere midway between the British colonial and Soviet styles. I was, at that particular moment, making a modest break against another recent acquaintance; the founder and editor of that now notorious website The Flaneur. After several games, the quality of which degenerating exponentially with the quantity of local hooch being consumed, we established a meaningful rapport, and as one thing led to another, we devised a life altering plan that typifies what can happen when a band of well-lubricated ex-patriot Brits who have gone native play billiards together. The idea being to depart the following day from said Inner Mongolian establishment, skirt the Gobi and journey up the Lanzhou Panhandle along the Silk Road to the Altai Mountains in search of Shambhala. If we ever did discover it, we never knew. Much like the mystery of the Sphinx, a theme that in part symbolises Arbuthnot's current literary foray: 'The Antonym of Melancholy' (written under the nom de plume of Democritus Minimus Natu). For some, perhaps such mysteries are not meant to be revealed, the secret to such an antonym may lie more in the challenge of the quest itself; the journey upon which we go in search of illumination and happiness. This of course presents the conundrum that the fulfilment of achieving a state of happiness must necessarily be relative to a state of melancholia, otherwise, how could one ever recognise its opposite? The value may then, perversely, lie in the fact that we should never realise that the light at the end of the tunnel is of its nature essentially elusive. Those who do emerge from the darkness to find themselves engulfed by the all embracing light of joy are probably suffering from rigour mortis and clutching a can of Brasso! God's a bit like that, you know.
All this makes 'The Antonym of Melancholy' sound like some rather weighty tome, but, Arbuthnot (or is it Democritus Minimus Natu? I'm never quite sure) has achieved something quite exceptional and thoroughly engaging in this book. Yes, he confronts all those paradoxical meaning of life type questions, and frequently does so via the understandings and misunderstandings that exist both within and between some extremely well-observed and well-defined characters (whose reactions towards themselves and others are not totally dissimilar to a Chinese landscape painting, in which the white spaces between the brushstrokes are just as revealing as the actual brushstrokes). However, what is truly special is that he achieves this by combining such a confident and erudite degree of linguistic control that the readers can bask in the reassurance that they are in safe hands along with absolutely side-splitting humour in a variety of styles. The humour is not only derived from incidents that occur between the characters, but more so from the contortions and somersaults he performs with the language itself. It ranges from the zany and surrealistic through to anagrams, double entendres and hysterical puns, even the naming of the characters does not escape this treatment.
Arbuthnot has spent his professional life immersed in the study of both language and literature. It is, therefore, not surprising to find a liberal sprinkling of poetry throughout the prose. The linkage between the poetry and prose, whether in the weighty or hilarious sections, is not only complimentary to the tale but seamless in its flow. Some of the poems are sourced but many are original. The inclusion of the sourced poems also provides Arbuthnot with the opportunity to indulge in some rapier-like literary criticism; Burns fans beware!
This book, however, is not simply a literary opus. It manages to knit together the written word with a musical element too, as it comes with a CD comprising of specific tracks which should be played at certain points in the story in order to enhance the text. Additionally, there is a visual dimension with illustrations that serve the same purpose. These pictures are both appropriate and unobtrusive. One in particular recurs several times, that of a felucca on the Nile; perhaps a reference to the aforementioned journey or quest in search of the antonym of melancholy? In fact, most of the illustrations are utilised to depict aspects of Egypt, the reason for this is because the story details two significant and contrasting aspects of Arbuthnot's life: the period when he lived and worked in Egypt is enmeshed with his current position within the Scottish higher academic regime (the dilemmas of the personal and broader politics of this particular environment he treats with depressingly ironic hilarity). The overall structure of the book is organised in brief chapters that alternate between his Scottish and Egyptian periods, and is not so much presented as a series of flashbacks or forwards but more sideways. The focus on these two experiences, however, raises the rather surreal question as to Arbuthnot's actual identity. Clearly, his central role in the book is pivotal in the sense that it is his experience of life that guides the reader, but, how many personalities does he have? Or indeed, how many possess him? Does he simply exist out of necessity; the main character, thus providing stability and direction to the text, or, is he Democritus Minimus Natu himself? Can the multiplicity of anagrams contained in appendix 10 provide us with any hints? Who knows?
The only drawback I can see with this book is that as bedtime reading, it is more likely to keep you awake than put you to sleep. The reason for this, apart from all of the above, is the range of issues discussed: astronomy and our understanding of the heavens, Egyptian Goddesses, religions and religious bigotry, witch hunts, the darkness of the Scottish Enlightenment, angst over the West's conversion to the new God of marketing, depression over unrestrained capitalism, the yearning for a better world, sensuality and the conflict of the sexes, and the possibilities provided by the internet as weapon of salvation. What more could one ask for? In addition, do not neglect to peruse the highly informative, not to mention humorous, appendices (of which there are no fewer than 14).
Finally, I feel obliged to inform those of a psychologically vulnerable disposition that this book comes with a health warning; it may induce uncontrollable feelings of self-doubt and schizophrenia, particularly if in possession of it within the vicinity of the Giza Sphinx.
Okay, enough said, anymore of this and I'll probably spoil the endings. And, by the way (as we say in Glasgow), if you are saying to yourself "Aye right, this reviewer is an old chum of Arbuthnot's so what do you expect?" Well, I can assure you that if I thought he had produced a pile of steaming faeces, I would have told him so, and not have wasted my precious time doing this review.
Dr De Ath.