Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It's like the Da Vinci Code. But with a brain

To the bookshelf where I'm gently re-inserting Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, a time-split tale of Satanic architecture and emotionless detectives.

It's giving nothing away to say that Nicholas Dyer, the anti-hero of the eighteenth century part of Hawksmoor, is a Satan-worshipper who is designing churches with demonic features and murdering people in them to consecrate them; all this is made clear early on. His twentieth-century counterpart is Nicholas Hawksmoor, a detective now faced with a series of murders at Dyer's churches.

If this sounds simple, it is and it isn't. Ackroyd alternates Dyer and Hawksmoor chapters, creating parallel narratives in which similar murders occur. So we have two almost identical stories, the modern inspired by the earlier.

The parallelism is taken to an intriguing depth. As well as identical actions (Dyer and Hawksmoor walk through the same streets in consecutive chapters, and when Dyer sees an autopsy, Hawksmoor then does), the same phrases and songs recur, and those who are murdered in each church share names and biographies. This both is an intellectual parlour game and has a serious point: Ackroyd meshes past and present, showing the same situations and ideas from different views, showing their (im)mutability.

Time as an idea is vital to the book. Dyer wants to create churches which will forever endure so his demonic wainscoting does, and both he and Hawksmoor debate the importance of time. Hawksmoor is original in its dual narrative and ultimately the stories confound time.

If you thought that was the confusing part, then turn away now. For one, the actual name of the architect who built several churches in London post-Great Fire was Nicholas Hawksmoor; Dyer is fictional. Immediately our ideas of reality are thrown out, as with the time-theme. (Given Ackroyd's intricate patterning, the identical first name is an obvious clue, while 'Dyer' is surely to evoke 'die'.)

The real Hawksmoor's C18 associates are present: the architects Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh turn up and are dragged into parallelism. Wren's visit to an asylum is met by Hawksmoor's visit to his senile father.

Initially adding to the confusion is Ackroyd's use of eighteenth century language for Dyer's chapters. It takes a while to get your ear in, to adjust to the capitals on nouns and the variety of spellings for the same words, but it becomes not only comprehensible but extremely evocative.

The eighteenth century sections are much richer for their language, their characters and their interactions. The modern chapters are drier, whether by intent, to evoke the emotionless and oblivious Hawksmoor, or just because so much energy has gone into Dyer. Dyer is much more interesting, despite or because of his ramblings and affection for Satan. But in both cases, we get convincing portraits of descents into madness.

The similarity with the Da Vinci Code comes from the hidden symbolism of the buildings, but whereas Dan Brown writes from his colon, Ackroyd set himself the challenge of manipulating great ideas (time, evil) in a literary form and succeeds admirably. The book is also tremendously frightening at points; its first modern murders are disturbing because Ackroyd spends so long shaping the victims' characters. Their deaths are desolating, and I freely admit after reading it in bed I slept uneasily.

If all the recurrent phrases and events become a little tiresome, their point is clear. The Hawksmoor chapters do tend to frustrate because of his lack of progress and dead inner self, which means you are eager to return to the fascinating, dark Dyer.

But by the end, Ackroyd has whirled a maelstrom of ideas and images. The dark heart of the book's themes endures just as do Dyer's (that is, Hawksmoor's) churches, which are themselves part of the dark heart. You see, it's complicated.

1 comment:

Brita said...

Keep up the good work.