Book Review: The Combinations

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“Don’t take any of this too seriously, it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Enjoy the show.”

The Combinations, by Louis Armand, is a vast and sprawling literary game of words, ideas and form. Set in post communist era Prague, it is written with an underlying tone of cynical sarcasm. It regularly mocks and derides its own content, challenging the reader to follow the labyrinthian narrative of puzzle within puzzle, to seek meaning within the hyperbole.

The protagonist is a man named Němec who has crushing memories of being raised in an orphanage after his parents were arrested for crimes against the state. He escaped this incarceration only to attempt suicide by walking out of a window. After many months of rehabilitation he is released from hospital, another institution, bearing scars and a pronounced limp. He becomes addicted to the drugs he is prescribed and to alcohol. He spends his days in cafes, bars, clubs and at the cinema. The people he sees in life and on the screen feed his inebriated, vivid imagination.

Němec is invited to play chess by a man he comes to know as the professor. This man tells him of an interest he has in a valuable manuscript, location unknown, its provenance shrouded in mystery. It is written in a language that no one can translate.

After the professor’s death Němec’s curiosity is piqued when the old man’s papers are locked away by the state. He starts to suspect a conspiracy linked to the professor’s past and takes it upon himself to investigate.

“As usual Němec’s thoughts are getting carried away by themselves.”

It is difficult to describe the way in which the great arc of this tale is presented. There are rambling and disjointed discourses on Němec’s thoughts and activities, on episodes from the Second World War that mix possible fact with the films he has watched. There are lengthy lists that present ideas from many angles, dense outpourings of thought from which it is difficult to fish coherency. I was reminded of ‘Infinite Jest’, although found ‘The Combinations’ more readable.

“like a game of chess which goes on to the bitter end, long after the outcome has lost its meaning. Each remaining move a dumb mechanical persistence”

What is the point of a game of chess? Is it enjoyment, a challenge to exercise the mind, a game played to teach strategy and ordered thought? Here we have the literary equivalent, a conundrum created by the author presented in 8 octaves, 64 chapters, 888 pages. It is a play on ideas and language, weaving the plot and many subplots in delirious directions. It tells a tale in what may be no particular order or a concealed and well practised plan. It is clever, perhaps too clever. It required feats of concentration that at times I struggled to muster.

The observations on Němec’s life are shown through a lens that suggest much of what is happening may be delusional. There is legend, history, science, philosophy, multiple references to modern culture. All are subjected to mockery, none more so than the text being read.

“The whole thing smacked of some heterocomical contrivance”

There is a bleakness pervading Němec’s life yet the narrative refuses to take anything too seriously. Certain ramblings were reminiscent of the overly embellished descriptions of art gallery exhibits in highbrow magazines; these would often contain a footnote agreeing with such a perspective. It becomes clear that much of what is going on is happening only within Němec’s head. What is more difficult to work out is which events are real enough to advance the main plot, which moves are cunning feint and which strategy required for the endgame. Of course, all are part of the whole. Within each obfuscation lie nuggets of backstory.

The writing offers a very male perspective. It also presents man in a notably unpleasant light. There are continual references to gobs of phlegm, congealed foodstuffs, drifting dandruff, stale piss and vomit, filaments of snot swallowed down or picked and examined. Sex is pornographic with oedipal references. Women are objectified and, more than once, raped.

“An actress merely exists to give flesh to men’s fantasies”

Němec writes his own screenplay featuring the people he sees, or imagines he sees. His life is filled with dead time, suffocating in his endless introspection, self medicated and delusional yet convinced that there is a grain of truth to be sought. What he is searching for a key, a solution, a mind map for his life.

“Everything’s just how you decide to think about it”

I have no doubt that this book will be considered a must read by those who enjoy challenging, clever writing. It is an astonishing creation, a literary journey that I am glad to have experienced. Having said that, it took effort and dogged persistence at times to circumvent the quantity of words and ideas. It demands time, so much time, and attention.

“People have been known to believe all sorts of things”

I wonder what interpretation others who choose to peruse this tome will take from it. As the publisher so enticingly invites: your move, reader.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Equus Press.

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