A review of Ludmila’s Broken English by DBC Pierre

The extraordinary way in which the brothers find their way to Ludmila and the convoluted machinations which everyone takes to get from the beginning to the end of this novel is enough to keep the reader reading, as is the over the top language for which Pierre has now become famous. Certainly the question of plausibility in the strained plotline is one which has been raised many times, by Pierre himself as well as reviewers, but plausibility is the least important aspect of this novel.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ludmila’s Broken English
by DBC Pierre
Faber and Faber (distributed in Australia by Allen and Unwin)
March 2006, pp332, ISBN 0571231659, A$29.95

Incongruity and serendipity are the two linchpins holding DBC Pierre’s latest novel Ludmila’s Broken English together. In his ‘not so far from here and now’ distopia, twins Blair and Gordon (Bunny) Heath are conjoined twins who are separated at the age of 33. Their names immediately alert the reader that there is more than a little political farce at work here (to state the obvious, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Edward Heath), and its best to read this book, which might otherwise seem bleaker than Waiting for Godot in the blackheartedly humorous way in which it was intended. With the weight of a Booker Prize pressing down upon it, Ludmilla’s Broken English is not delicate, but it is a purplish romp, full of heady crime, sexual urges, neuroses, the ugliness of war and terrorism, and the occasional beauty of simple filial love.

Blair and Bunny, newly separated, have just been released from their long term asylum, Albion (ancient name of Great Britain) House, where privatisation has been the catalyst for the release of twins from state care. They arrive in London and are met by Mister Lamb, who has a ‘job’ for them. Blair and Bunny’s relationship is as neurotic as it’s realistic, with its continual cruelty, fed primarily by love and ego. Pierre’s sibling rivalry is hilarious, and also the most tender of the relationships in this otherwise Machiavellian world. Blair is exhilarated by his newfound freedom, and ready to take on the world, while Bunny wants nothing more than to go back to Albion House with its weekly Shepherd’s Pie, it’s routine, and warbling birdsong. The tension between these brothers as they charm, connive, and push the plot forward towards its conflicting conclusion, is simultaneously shocking and lovely, often at the same time:

The pair strode to the middle of the floor. They made a tight ceremony of acing each other, then pressed themselves hard together at the abdomen, as if plugging in a single nervous system. Like two halves of a puzzle they clicked into one formidable being, the join between them lost in the black of their suits. Their heads snapped mechanically forward, eyes fastened over each other’s shoulders. They clicked up their arms, locked each other in a formal grip, and froze erect for the length of eight quick beats. Then, as if pooled for use between them, their four legs began to effortlessly scissor, lattice, churn, and chop the air, tangling and disentangling in blinding flashes, seemingly independent of the torsos floating motionless above.(168)

The second story is Ludmila Derev’s, as she tries to escape her dysfunctional family, and the civil war destroying her home, Ublilsk, in the Caucasus. After a grusome rape which ends in murder, Ludmilla manages to escape her factory fate, in the hopes of being whisked off to a perfect West by her boyfriend Misha, but instead ends up with her photo on a website for Westerners, featuring Russian brides: “Generous men come from countries where women have grown selfish and decadent, come for even the smallest taste of a real woman’s spirit, and they pay any sum to do it.” (142)

Meanwhile, the Heath’s arrival in London after a lifetime of living in regulated confinement is, to a certain extent, a metaphor for the way in which a cosseted Britain (or perhaps even a cosseted Western world) is faced with the wildness of the East, with its perpetual war and hunger: “The Heaths’ collision with the new world was as shocking to behold as a lorry crashing into a pram.” (137) Like Blair, for all his energy, and Bunny, for all his gorgeous wordslinging, the average westerner remains naïve and ignorant of the strife and hunger of everyday life in places like Ludmilla’s home, where resources may well be owned by large Western multinationals. The relationship between the two stories that make up the novel, even before Blair and Bunny arrive in Russia, are clear:

No more break to Ublilsk. It’s a matter of economics.’
‘But while there are still souls to feed — ?’
‘Well, no.’ The man held up a finger. ‘It’s because there are not enough people to feed. You see? The service is private now, with foreign ownerse. They’re not going to send a train, and send men to clean the track, for just a dozen loaves.’(179)

The Heaths arrive in the flashing light, ‘Alice down the hole’ life of London and are faced with the sweaty excesses of nightclub life. The arrival comes complete with a “drink me” sachet of optimism in a glass, the Howizer: “I’ve never seen anything flash like that in a glass, it’s liquid fireworks.” (158) Many have called it purple prose, over the top, but there’s no need to be dry and intellectual about it. Pierre’s pinpoint posturing actually makes for a great deal of linguistic fun: “Sharp downlights like hanging light-sabres patterned the room, all but one of whose walls were mirrored from floor to ceiling, giving the effect of an endless middle earth, a halogen sperm stadium wriggling with life.” (112) In the nightclub, the brothers meet Truman, a terrifyingly sleezy but slick American. Truman sums up his philosophy in a way that epitomizes the hidden destructiveness of the West which fuels the pain of the East: “if they’re hungry, and in danger, and if it suits my interests to give them comfort, is that exploitation?” (164) His nihilism is silky smooth as he recruits Blair and Bunny to work for him:

A meaningful relationship is a profitable relationship, it’s been that way since the dawn of time…Respect the succession of waivers that passes for a relationship, and you’re on your way to understanding the ways of this world. And it’s the same for countries, corporations, men, women, and children.(161)

The extraordinary way in which the brothers find their way to Ludmila and the convoluted machinations which everyone takes to get from the beginning to the end of this novel is enough to keep the reader reading, as is the over the top language for which Pierre has now become famous. Certainly the question of plausibility in the strained plotline is one which has been raised many times, by Pierre himself as well as reviewers, but plausibility is the least important aspect of this novel. What, after all is plausible in a world where you can find an odd kind of nuclear family on the Internet, where your grandfather can commit the most horrendous of all crimes, and where everyday life in one country is a daily struggle for survival because of economic decisions taking place in a country on the other side.

The narrative voice for Ludmila’s Broken English is as wry and sardonic as the characters are rich: “This pact lasted two hundred yards, after which he could no longer bear the loaf’s fresh weight any more.” (206) Every character has his or her own distinctive voice, his or her own subtext, and the droll omniscience of the narrator pulls their lives together in ways which none of the seem to enjoy. The reader, however, certainly will. I think it is fair to say that this is not meant to be a dreamy, or deeply moving novel. It is often graphically gruesome and unpleasant. Even the deepest emotional bonds are fraught with selfishness, fear, hunger, and the ugliest of desires. The settings, even the halcyon ones, are shallow and full of psychological stress. But Ludmila’s Broken English is a funny and highly energetic book. The ending is particularly funny, in the blackest of ways. At times the humour is light enough for the reader to laugh out loud. At other times, the bizarre veracity is enough to cause a shiver. Either way, it’s a mistake to look too hard for a light at the end of this tunnel, or even a profound statement on the beauty of the human race. The satisfaction of keeping our heads in the comfortable sand, and the occasional “laff” may be all we get. As Truman says in his nightclub pit, ‘Go with it…it’s good.’

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