A Native’s Tongue
Upon opening A Native’s Tongue, we are thrown head first into what appears to be a dizzying, somewhat blurry, patchwork of streams of consciousness, swaying to and fro between the relentless recollection of painful memories and the consequently weighted strain of just getting on with life, of simply putting one foot in front of the other… A constellation of characters, with their sores, regrets, and meagre hopes, gravitates around one central black hole: something happened and shattered them all into little pieces. This black hole is, in fact, a man: he has a name, a face, arms, and legs like any other, but has something else that makes him irreducibly different, something that mysteriously draws hearts to his before breaking them. His name is Charlie, and the first heart to irremediably break will in fact be his own.
Memories intermingle as they gradually unravel, page after page, and little by little the puzzle assembles, and before our eyes we suddenly have a harrowing tragedy that could easily have been the work of a Sophocles or a Racine. Indeed in Racine’s Phèdre, we know, as early as the opening act, exactly what will unfold in the following four. Destiny shows herself in gaudy colors. On the contrary in A Native’s Tongue, she wears a mask and does not fully reveal the scope of her diabolical machinations until the very end. Here lies Michael Dennis’s – our 21st century Euripides – talent: letting us sense, from the very first page, that something terrible is there, underlying, pending, a ghost of the past constantly surfacing to haunt the present, but not allowing us to grasp the full horror of it until the last paragraph. We, therefore, have a reversed tragedy: we start from the end and gradually make our way to understanding the beginning. And let us reassure our readers: a reversed tragedy is in no way less thrilling than one told in the right order. It simply means it includes, in addition to the “terror” and “pity” that should be triggered by a tragedy that follows the tenets exposed by Aristotle in his much revered Poetic, one key ingredient that the great Athenian omitted: suspense. This, consequently, also implies you are going to read this novel in one single blink, instead of two.
If we follow this strain of thoughts and deepen the analogy with this genre, we notice that all the themes a good tragedy should explore are present: love, hate, fate, Cornelian dilemmas, Ophelian descents into the abysses of madness. Love is the starting point, the original sin, the defended, the forbidden fruit innocently bitten into by each and every one of these artless beings. Following closely, creeps jealousy, and her Proustian poison. Just behind jealousy crawls dementing hatred and its wake hate carries death itself, the Grim Reaper in person. Looking down on this hearse-like procession, there is Destiny, head judge in this trial lost in advance: who, indeed, can claim a clear case when the accusation is that of passionate love?
Once again Michael Dennis twists the scenario a little: no heroes will be found here, no Cid, no Britannicus, no Hercules, but only a Charlie, with all his faults and shortcomings. But also with that something, that magically crystallizes the whole disaster scenario around him.
Terror and pity, wrote Aristotle, should be the two passions triggered by any tragedy worthy of the name in order to give way to the purging “catharcis.” Had Aristotle read this novel, once having recovered the shock the mention of motorized cars and cell phones may have produced on him, he would not have said himself to be disappointed by Michael Dennis’s work: terror and pity ruthlessly swell and sway the poor reader’s heart as he turns each new page with renewed avidity. This is all the more the case as Dennis adds, once again, an extra ingredient out of his personal pantry: muti-perspectivism. Indeed, we are successively merged into the very minds and hearts of each character, into the very cracks and cuts of their broken lives, and though their points of views are irreducibly contradictory, we understand and embrace each and every one of these points of view with the same pity and apprehend the inevitable collision of these contradictions with the same sheer terror.
The story of hearts colliding and breaking – this is what can be read in A Native’s Tongue. To cut a long – yet far from tedious – story short, this novel is a most sublime demonstration of the power of destruction of love. Pages drenched with tears and blood that your eager eyes will soak up with impassioned avidity.
|Ocean Street Press
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