Forbidden Line, by Paul Stanbridge, is such an original work of fiction it is hard to simply explain what it is about. At its most basic it tells a story of two men, Don and Is, who walk around Essex and into London together discussing their lives and what they hope to achieve. Both are highly unusual characters.
Don has spent the last twenty-one years writing a book. When Is is struck by lightning in a field, Don takes him into his improvised home to recover. Don believes their coming together in this way is a sign and the pair set off on their perambulations.
Don says of Is
“You pilot the least penetrative mind I have ever encountered”
“I do not think there is a man or woman alive who can persuade you out of these beliefs […] But that doesn’t mean they are not founded on error”
However, Is’s mind has a redeeming feature. He may not be able to read or write but, since the lightning strike, he remembers everything he is told.
Don wishes to be married to chance. He refuses to accept that anything other than the here and now exists. He eschews all plans, accepting that whatever happens along the way is as it is meant to be.
“From whence does order spring? From the impulse to tidy-up. But the very tidying-up is what creates the notion of disorder and mess”
He recognises that society functions on a very different premise.
“There can be no chaos! screams the neurosis of the West”
“It is the chaos our culture has sought to smother, good manners and right behaviour being the puritanical bedfellows of rationalism and logical argument”
The pair wander through the fields and lanes of Essex indulging in rambling dialogue, much of which appears nonsensical. However, in amongst the many monologues reside nuggets of wisdom.
They partake in a series of misadventures with others they meet. Some of these strangers accept or ignore Don’s pronouncements, politeness dictating that those who appear mad should be tolerated until escaped from. Others are less accepting leading to brawls when a new acquaintance reaches
“the limit of his own tolerance for an insult he could not understand”
Don’s determination to accept whatever chance offers leads to some very funny scenes. The pair are followed by a herd of curious cows. They steal a horse. They cast aside their clothes. When the forces of law and order step in to punish their offences it is for behaving differently more than causing harm.
“The clan is an oppressive institution, asserting identities, managing normativities, punishing dissent in order that it be a single manageable body”
Don, choosing to live only in the present, questions the excitement of anticipation when others make plans.
“This is a feature of human pleasure, the enjoyment of something which hasn’t yet happened”
The plans that Don and Is eventually get caught up in are a re-enactment of The Peasants Revolt. They have been assigned the role of leaders against their will. The crowds gathering listen to Don’s words but hone in only on the message they want to hear.
This latter section of the book, which takes up well over a hundred pages, was in places wearing to read. Don is struggling to square his rejection of history and newly found dislike of the written word with what he now feels he can achieve.
“I had drifted perilously close to that normative human activity which leads from desire, through exertion, to satisfaction. It is a disposition on the one hand praised as aspirational and on the other denigrated as depraved, depending on the object of desire”
Inexplicable events occur. The suffering systematically meted out by the wealthy on the poor becomes manifest to the perpetrators, yet still they will not desist. Retaliation is merciless. It is hard to know what to believe.
There is much in the prose that I loved, for example, a town viewed from a distance is described as “draped over a hill”. The droll manner in which the author portrays the protagonists’ peculiarities is a pleasure to read.
“Here Don paused in order to become miserable; this having been achieved, he continued”
The story is, apparently, a retelling of Don Quixote. Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of the seemingly abtruse sections more had I been familiar with the original.
This is not a book to be rushed. There are penetrative insights to be gleaned from a cast of characters whose questionning of what is regarded as normal will make the reader ponder accepted behaviours anew. The story may be challenging in places but any effort required to uncover its essense will be rewarded.
“anything can be made to symbolise anything with the right approach”