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IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS

BEYOND THE REALM OF THE CLASSIFIABLE

Review by Steffan Hamilton

These are the last things, she wrote. One day they will disappear and never come back.

This is the blunt beginning to Paul Auster's least understood and in some ways most uncharacteristic work. It describes the odyssey of 19 year-old Anna Blume to find her brother in a post-apocalyptic vision of New York, told to a childhood friend in a letter that will never be read.

You could say a lot of things about In the Country of Last Things, and many of them would be inappropriate if not inaccurate; it is difficult to speculate about a novel that is so hard to characterise.

This is one of the stories that Auster felt compelled to write from an early age, although it was not published until 1987, by which time the writer was indelibly marked on the literary map. It is a book full of contradictions. It is at once a difficult and a very easy book to read, and at the same time it is a powerful portrait of many of the facets of contemporary urban life. Auster's private working title for the book suggests as much: Anna Blume Walks through the 20th Century.

The country of last things is a hopeless place where commercial manufacture and human reproduction have finished. What is left is a grim arena where matter is only transformed, whether it be human waste and corpses into energy, or broken refuse, collected by scavengers and turned into useful merchandise. No children are born, for to have children you need money, health and optimism. These are commodities that have all but ceased to exist in the setting of Paul Auster's novel.

In the decimated city, muggings are commonplace, food is prohibitively expensive, and there is no permanence of tenancy, neither through rent nor ownership. It is not a place one can easily leave, due to the restrictive taxes levied for doing so. Governments (whose main purposes are to collect human waste and the dead into dust carts) change so often it is hard to know who is in power, and it is clear that there is no democratic process in action.

This is the land through which Anna must wander in search of her older brother William, a missing journalist sent out to write the story of this hopeless place. She buys herself a supermarket trolley (a considerable acquisition in this impoverished society) and sets herself up as an object-hunter, a glorified bag lady who searches the streets for anything that might be sold to one of the city's resurrection agents - vendors and repairers of reclaimed rubbish. Through this, she meets with a woman called Isabel. She comes to move in with Isabel and her insufferable husband Ferdinand, an obnoxious and frustrated sign-painter who now feats on the mice that inhabit their flat and obsessively builds a fleet of ever more diminutive ships in bottles.

It is partly a product of the adversity of the situation that Auster enjoys the unrivalled opportunity to create wonderfully eccentric characters and sects without any of the encumbrances that our ordered world would inflict on them. Despite the darker echoes of holocaust literature in details such as the newspaper used inside coats as insulation and the expulsion of Jews from the national library, there are moments of comedy and cruel irony emerging from the crazed hysteria of many of the city's inhabitants. The runners for instance, are a suicide cult whose members train themselves through rigorous order to their pinnacle of fitness, a fitness that enables them to run for long enough to die from exhaustion. "In order to kill yourself running, you first have to train yourself to be a good runner."

Death, as well as the discontinuation of reproductive life, forms one of the major themes in Country of Last Things, and in a world where life is insufferable, the wish to die spawns a considerable industry. There are a thousand ways a person can buy their death, from the euthanasia clinics, which offer a last spree of hedonism before the injection is administered, to the cheaper assassination clubs, whereby the participant joins a society that guarantees to contract his or her murder. One of the pivotal scenes in the book sees Anna lured into a slaughter where the living are murdered and cut into pieces for sale as food. This, Auster has based on his reading of happenings in Leningrad during the siege. That she escapes from this shocking ordeal is incredible, though because of the incident she loses her lover Samuel Farr, the journalist who has been sent out to replace her brother, and the man she falls deeply in love with after leaving Isabel and her deranged husband.

Part of what makes Anna the remarkable heroine that she is, is her continuing ability to love, in a city where it is an achievement to retain even the determination to live. Whether it is sexual love - for a man or a woman - or sisterly love, her propensity for passion under such duress is a testament not just to her own character but to humanity as a whole. It is perhaps this undying heart, more than circumstance, that enables Anna to become pregnant, a happening otherwise unheard of in the city. This wholeness of being, along with that of others (most notably Elizabeth - the embodiment of altruism) is vital to the underlying feeling of hope that is pervasive throughout. Readers of holocaust biography might be reminded of the great love and stoicism that writers like Primo Levi impart.

Auster asks a lot for his reader to imagine that this place really is the end of everything, but ultimately it is not hard to disengage from cynicism when you liken the situation depicted by the novel to a meeting of all the misery and civic injustice that has happened in the 20th century. The nature of this situation is a cause of some confusion; although Auster plainly states that this is not a post-apocalyptic work, he would be the first to admit that once the ink is dry, it is as much the part of the reader as it is of the author to decipher the meaning of a book: I imagine that many of its readers will come to this conclusion. It would certainly be under "Post-Apocalyptic" in an exceptionally rigorously-categorised bookshop. An alternative reading would deem that it is an allegorical multiplication of the faults of our present society. Fundamentally the issue is purely academic, and not of the greatest importance to a fulfilling interpretation of the novel.

Final recommendation? I would not say that this is one of Auster's great works; doubtless many will disagree, but for the essence of the later Paul Auster novels, try the longer and more epic works like Mr. Vertigo and Moon Palace. It is certainly representative of Auster in some ways: the coincidental meetings between the characters are present as they are in all his novels, and the reiteration of some of the themes begun in New York Trilogy (like the inability of language to convey categorisation for defunct objects and altered matter) provide a playful counterpoint to the greater body of meaning.

What you get ultimately is a taste of Paul Auster that has become confused by its context. In most respects it is still however a very strong novel. For its strength of characterisation and its imaginative and sensitive reconstruction of real events, and of course a heroine to rival any, it is an engaging work and well worth a read.

(You can e-mail Steffan at steffan@paulauster.co.uk)