“Black and red: The only colors that matter.”
Add black’s shadow -- white -- and, in the context of Dutch author Peter Verhelst’s grim, hallucinatory novel “Tonguecat,” this drastic assertion may be taken at face value as a sort of existential-cum-aesthetic manifesto. Verhelst gives this quintessential line to a monastic, demon-riddled figure named Juan who, although obsessed with the desire for nothing, is forced to inhabit a luridly luxurious room of the Palace, which he keeps plunged in deepest darkness.
Wraith-like, anorexic, red-eyed Juan, a.k.a. The Monster, is one of more or less six individuals -- identities, in “Tonguecat,” have a tendency to shift and merge -- who address themselves directly to the reader. (By the way, as almost everyone dies gruesomely, and their violent civilization is apparently annihilated, this raises a chronic issue of first-person usage in fiction: to whom is the speaker talking, and from where and when?)
Roughly the first third of the narration belongs to Peter, an orphan of “the year Zero,” when “the cold was a snake that struck your heels ... sliding up your spine.... The winter was pitiless, felling one inhabitant after another ... even our veins froze in our bodies. Twigs of red coral.” Peter’s tale, however confusing and disjointed, follows the arc of the story from first moment to last, from the deep freeze down to the bleached ant-people that labor and plot in a Hades beneath the Palace, from killings to casual betrayal to the peace of loss.
Others chime in with their own fates and partial perspectives on the blood-red tide that eventually engulfs the frozen kingdom.
They include Peter’s later mentor, a nameless, hissing cat-boy who nests among loquacious flying books and becomes the boy-prince’s valet; the fastidious, murdering crown prince turned king; the charismatic Ulrike (a phoenix-like survivor of Titanic rape and pillage), an apocalyptic girl-centaur straddling a roaring motorcycle. Ulrike is the eponymous tonguecat: lover, catalyst, addict and dealer in dreams (dreams being the only currency left in the city): “Like every girl in the trade I had a name.... Because my tongue was lithe as a cat. To prove it, I put a lump of ice in my mouth and, a moment later, took out a perfect strawberry.... My tongue was as sharp as a hypodermic needle and pierced their arms, right down to the vein. Sometimes I licked the stories over their skin.”
A stunning picture here, another word-painting in red and shades of black and white. In Verhelst’s work, language is image and image is language, brilliant metaphor without the dimming veil of comparison. Ulrike, like her fellow speakers in this narrative, thinks mainly in images, as in this incantation, when she recalls her affair with Prometheus, the son of the Titan who butchered her own parents:
His arms that I moved up and down.
His hands that taught me to forget gravity.
Ulrike, Peter, the King: None is a character in the usual sense. Verhelst composes in a Jungian mode, dealing in archetypes rather than personalities, and the voices all sound rhetorically similar; without events they would be as hard to differentiate as cats in an unlit tunnel or a blacked-out bedchamber. The collective voice is part heroic, part elegiac, at times ironic -- but never humorous or even lighthearted.
Verhelst has stated that a major theme in his award-winning “Tonguecat” -- fluently, authoritatively translated by Sherry Marx -- is the destructive nature of fear. The book’s sustained imagery, however, never evokes fear so much as visual fascination, paired at times with visceral revulsion. Commentators on the work have reached for parallels, from Jorge Luis Borges to William Gibson to “The Matrix” (honest?). They could equally well have mentioned Franz Kafka’s “The Castle,” Homer’s “Iliad” and Norse king-myths. Surprising, in the publicity and jacket copy, is what’s been left out: Namely, that Ulrike is also Meinhof, and the names of her underground associates -- Andreas, Gudrun, the infamous Carlos -- refer us to the Baader Meinhof Gang, the anarchist Red Army Faction that operated in West Germany from 1968 to 1977.
The conceit is fascinating. It reverberates. However -- especially by presenting Ulrike as an apocryphal holocaust survivor -- “Tonguecat” comes disturbingly close to making a case for the anarchists. Reader, be forewarned: If you enter “Tonguecat,” pay attention down to the very last page. Nothing is extraneous here.