9/10. Fantasy, surrealism. 512 p.
How to explain this book?
Brian Catling is a visual artist who excels in performance art and sculpture and has exhibitions in those scary and baffling modern art museums around the world. He’s also a dyslectic poet. His friends asked him to write down his ideas and from the age of 61 he worked for 6 years on the first few pages before discovering the existence of the laptop, which helped his dyslexia.
When his book finally got published in 2012, headlines exclaimed that “Visual Artist Invents New Form of Fantasy Literature” and “Easily the Current Century’s First Landmark Work of Fantasy”. Catling wasn’t even aware that he was writing fantasy but he doesn’t mind being included in the genre. He merely worked on something surrealistic and macabre, like his sculptures, and written down with a hint of his poetic sensibilities.
The Vorrh is clearly written by a visual artist, and in this sense Catling is a bit like Mervyn Peake, who was a painter and his writing (Gormenghast) was like a painter fleshing out scenes with broad strokes and small touches of color. Catling is very visual and physical. In the first scene, for example, a man cuts open the body of his lover, some sort of African forest witch, and constructs a living bow and arrow from her body (it’s a loving act).
He has a theme going on of mixing up the living and non-living world in a very visceral sense. In some scenes he describes guns and motorcycles as living beings with wooden flesh and steel bones and organs. In others, the rooms and the forest itself are alive and sentient. Bodies behave strangely and have unusual physical reactions to words. Sometimes, Catling’s lateral thinking goes overboard and he freely associates, making the strangest analogies while there doesn’t seem to be any meaning behind it.
The story is set in colonial Africa and follows a couple of characters. There is the Frenchman who attempts to cross through the mightly Vorrh forest, and an African hunter who gets hired to track and murder this man. The forest, meanwhile, is semi-sentient and older than mankind, and it is said that the Garden of Eden is still to be found in there. That everything came from the Vorrh. The quest of the Frenchman and the African hunter are foretold in myth and prophesy. The book also follows some other characters, a photographer with a traumatic split in his brain, a homosexual explorer from a different age, and a sex-crazed cyclops, raised by Bakelite robots.
It’s frustrating at first how the plot strands have little in common, and it gives the whole a jumbled, unfocused feeling. Only on higher, or deeper, metaphysical levels are the storylines connected. Catling seems to contrast “seeing double in confusion” with “seeing clear with single focus”. The setting in colonial Africa adds to this effect because it is shown as a confused land with two overlapping realities. The single-eyed cyclops sees clear into things, and thinks that double-eyed humans are shifty. A photographer with brain damage sees double, but his single-eyed lens captures a reality about the world and heals him.
Fantastic elements are rare. He sprinkles them throughout the story, here and there. And when they come, they are shocking and unsettling. There is an element of the weird and the uncanny in the story, and of the disgusting, especially related to a certain cyclops character. In a sense, it may remind you of the TV series Lost, or of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.
Catling’s writing crackles like lightning. He makes the strangest analogies that make you see familiar things in a new light. Every chapter introduces stunning visual imagery. The characters have complex emotions and motivations, and Catling has no trouble describing the subtlest sensibilities. At the same time, reading it is hard work. If your concentration falls for just a moment, you’ll need to reread lines and paragraphs to follow the strange turns of phrase.
In the end, although this is a fascinating book with disturbing and disgusting events and strange stories, I cannot give it the highest recommendation because it didn’t grab me emotionally. It felt like a lot of surface-work, overindulging and shocking for the sake of shock, and rather impersonal. But I will remember it for a long time.