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Regicide by Nicholas Royle

We need to start this review with a little history. In 1949, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote his first novel. It’s called Un Régicide but, for some typically Gallic reasons, it never actually saw the light of publication until 1978. There were a few editorial changes but, for the most part, the original novel transcended the years with very few changes. What was true just after the War, was true many years later. Thematically, the book is about loneliness. We have a confusion between the first-person narrator on an island and third-person Boris who lives in a city. Except there’s a kind of labyrinth in operation which links the two locations. Indeed, they may even be the same place with the island created as a dreamscape by Boris. The interesting feature of our named character is his lack of true friends, hence his possible escapism through the fog to the island. The sea around this island probably symbolises death as the dreams become nightmares that end with images of imprisonment.

Now we come to Nicholas Royle, a man whose short fiction has consistently been of the highest possible quality. He now offers Regicide (Solaris Books, 2011), his sixth adventure into the longer form, this time with a more modern take on themes similar to those raised by Robbe-Grillet. Here we have Carl. When he was young and fit, he was a cycle courier in London. As a lover of maps and visual puzzles, the freedom to explore and find new ways through the city gave him great satisfaction. Now he’s suffocating as the owner of a shop dealing in collectible records and some old books. On his first date with Annie Risk (a provocative name if ever there was one), he gets lost when walking her back to her hotel — not something that happens to him very often. On the way back to his flat, he feels disconnected from reality and, much to his own surprise, breaks into a house where he can hear a telephone ringing. Perhaps the call is for him. Some days later outside the shop, he finds part of a street map. He has no idea where it is. The challenge is whether he can find the places. Or perhaps whether the fragment he has found is like a piece of cheese in a mousetrap designed to catch clever people like Carl.

Nicholas Royle, master of the long and short forms

Carl is struggling to read Un Régicide but, with only schoolboy French, it’s slow progress. This is a man who enjoys a solitary challenge, but we are also to focus on the relationship between the man and the book. Because his translation skills are second best, it’s like trying to see the world described in the book through a fog of only partial understanding. In Robbe-Grillet’s novel, we also meet a man who struggles to see where he’s going because of the fog. You will therefore understand there’s a conscious parallelism between the dreamscapes in both the French original and Royle’s novel. Rather like China Miéville’s fascination with cityscapes, we are to consider the relationship between the world we think we see as we ride or drive through it, and the reality behind it. In the cinema before CGI, we often saw painted backdrops and simple frontages thrown up on backlots. Today, much of the background we see in film and television is unreal, generated by computers. Similarly, in the real world, you might visit a place designed for tourists. You will be given a map that’s designed to encourage you only to visit the designated places that will earn the town or city the most money. You’re not expected to slip through the side streets to discover the world beyond — the world where the locals live, the world where it’s often dirty and dangerous. . . Carl is a man who feels threatened. It’s as if this other world is somehow seeping out through the cracks and crannies of his normality, from around the back of the gasholders, from the unseen places we only glimpse from the corners of our eyes. Even if someone gives us a map, how reliable is it? The fact it does not have a legend warning of the presence of dragons, does not means there are no monsters waiting to eat us if we step off the path stretching in front of us. Life is never as predictable as we would like.

So here’s the question for you. When you dream, past and present, reality and unreality get all mixed up. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the waking from the dream worlds. They blend together as your eyes flicker uneasily under closed lids. How do you know when it’s a dream? As a final thought, when people lose track of reality, they often remember or relive episodes from their past. When those past events were traumatic, recalling them can be very disturbing. I’m reminded that kings are often revered as the father of their country. That makes regicide akin to patricide.

Regicide is a book I found interesting rather than gripping. As it develops, there are elements of horror, but the underlying themes are guilt, darkness and death. We fear the dark because we cannot see where we are. We fear death because we cannot see what will happen afterwards. We fear what we have done during life because we see our own imperfections all too clearly.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see First Novel: A Mystery.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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