Jonathan Coe – The Rotters’ Club

Read this book and finally find out what Bovril meat extracts and Dairy Milk chocolate bars are. Read it and once for all measure the distance between the progressive rock of Yes and the punk of the early Clash. Read it and really appreciate the difference between Birmingham’s King William’s College, the best school in town, and the ghetto-area of Handsworth, where the Jamaican immigrants used to live, and probably still do.

In short, if you read it, on your lips, in your ears, eyes, and heads you’ll keep the flavours, the music, the images, and the ideas of a land that now doesn’t exist anymore, except in memories. A land ruled with an iron hand by Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. A land where Enoch Powell, MBE, announced the coming of the “Rivers of Blood”. A land shocked by the IRA bombing campaigns. In a few words, England in the Seventies.

Many times I have come across the so-called Bildungsroman novels. Many times I have plunged into the stories of boys and girls in the troubled passage from childhood to youth. The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe pays its homage to the genre, and tells the story of the coming of age of four young boys from Birmingham – Benjamin Trotter, the main character, and his schoolmates Harding, Anderton, and Chase. It is a polyphonic novel, that portrays the parallel events in the lives of the four boys, their friends and parents, in a ceaseless sequence of happiness and tragedy, of misery and love.

Yet, there is something different in this book, that makes it fresher, lighter and, in a way, more suggestive than those of the same kind recently published. Something that drives me to consider it an unexpected, precious surprise. Something that makes me regret the time unwittingly lost in reading other texts without the opportunity to encounter this one before. If, in an effort to dampen my enthusiasm, I try to shape in a more rational way what I really appreciated in Coe’s art, I find that two are the remarkable qualities of this novel. Two features that, if I judge correctly, are linked together as tightly as if they were similar parts generated by the same talent.

To be honest, the first feature is not really new, since it can be easily found in many contemporary fiction works, both books and movies. It is the typical joint-tale structure, where the plot, initially fragmented in sections of different style and genre, finds its connections and its dénouement only in the final parts of the story. The Rotter’s Club, at its very beginning, is hard to be read as a single story, as it seems composed by frames dissimilar in the thematic and linguistic approaches.

Next to the classical descriptions of places and characters one can find notes from a diary or excerpts from a typescript; dialogues and reflections of the author alternate with pop song lyrics and newspaper articles; the third-person narrative, which is the prevalent voice on the whole, is flanked occasionally by story-within-the-story sections – like the magnificent narrative sequence at the opening of the second part, and the surprising stream-of-consciousness monologue in the last chapter of the novel.

Anyway, I must admit that it had been a long time since I last enjoyed a fictional skill so suitable to the story and, at the same time, so fluent and apparently simple. Unlike other books, everything makes sense in The Rotter’s Club.

Everything seems to be smoothly set in the right place at the right time. Indeed, it’s hard to perceive a real fault in Coe’s novel. I’d just point out a bit of redundancy in the descriptions of some tragic events, where sorrow is so bitter to seem a little stereotyped and oversimplified; or an occasional amount of naiveté in the depiction of the feelings expressed by some characters. In my opinion, these defects are slight and easy enough to be excused, if compared to the high sense of credibility of the work, and its power of portraying faithfully the complexity of life.

I believe that this natural purity of view on the world should be ascribed to the second winning feature of this author: to Coe’s writing or, better, to the pliability and the ductility of his style. Actually his prose, well grounded on the joint-tale structure mentioned above, is bright and, sometimes, extremely amusing without being ordinary; accurate in the description of the past without being pedantic; wistful and, sometimes, touching without being oversentimental; sharp in the judgements without being moralistic. In my opinion the readability and the appeal of the book, cheerful and thoughtful at the same time, is generated by Coe’s stunning ability of orchestrating the voices of the story, even those out-of-key.

At the very beginning of The Rotter’s Club, one of the characters says that the story she’s about to tell (that is, the story narrated in the book itself) has no real ending: it just stops, and that’s it. This seems a key statement – coming from the author but expressed vicariously – by which he declares that every single human action has no actual meaning, but the indifferent and automatic flow of life. Yet, as it was usual to do long time ago, if I were asked to look for the moral, or the message, of the story, I’d find it in the values of tolerance and, if not of forgiveness, of understanding among human beings. As it generally happens in modern literature, this is not a strong claim.

Indeed, it is rather uncertain, as if the author tried to conceal it the very moment he’s showing it to the readers. Anyway, it’s not hard to find its marks here and there, chiefly in the second part of the book, when Benjamin begins his efforts to be reconciled with the world. In my opinion, this is the true sense of the conflicting encounter of Benjamin and his German friend with the Jew brothers they met during their holidays in Denmark; of his troubled relationship with Cicely’s uncle, a Welsh patriot, from which he learns, perhaps, to realize the hardships of the English rule and, looking back at his own past, to find a reason to the IRA attack on his sister Lois; of the love between Benjamin and Cicely. This feeling is not just an explosion of sensuality for them, but also marks, as far as I can judge, the dawning of a new balance after a long story of misunderstandings and doubts, that had always prevented them from meeting in the truest, deepest sense.

(Translation by the author)

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Michele Curatolo
Another real Nowhere man floating down a Nowhere sea, he is hard to be defined both from his own features and from his age. He leads his life working unwillingly for one of the absolute temples of Brescianity, from which he nevertheless takes inspiration for his own writings. Expelled from every circle he joined, his friends call him Wikipedia because of his mysterious opinions and unclear pronunciation of Rs, Ls, Vs, Ps, Ss, and Fs, which he mingles in the same sound. He claims to be a pacifist, but also boasts that, a long time ago, he wrote some revolutionary texts for a bad-tempered, greedy former guerrilla hero, now converted to the cause of the free market.