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Book review: Asunder by Chloe Aridjis hinges on real-life 1914 defacement of a painting of Venus in London's National Gallery

Some of the best prose in Chloe Aridjis’ second novel, set in the National Gallery in London, describes the attack on Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus by the knife-wielding Mary Richardson to protest the imprisonment of a fellow suffragette, Anna Aslanyan writes

The National Gallery in London, the setting for Chloe Aridjis' novel Asunder. George Rose / Getty Images
The National Gallery in London, the setting for Chloe Aridjis' novel Asunder. George Rose / Getty Images

Asunder
Chloe Aridjis
Chatto & Windus

One day in 2008, the radical art critic John Berger went to the National Gallery in London to do some sketching. On his way there, he remembered his early visits to the place during the Blitz, and how he used to wonder about the museum attendants: were they recruited from a special pool? Would it be possible to apply? To volunteer?

Once in front of Antonello da Messina's Crucifixion, Berger started drawing - only to be told off by an armed security guard - apparently, putting his shoulder bag on the floor was against the rules. He asked to be allowed to finish the sketch, but was escorted outside, a supervisor telling him: "You will now walk in front of us to the main exit. I take it you know the way."

Marie, the protagonist of Asunder, Chloe Aridjis' second novel, has worked as a guard at the gallery for nearly a decade. Had she been in the room when Berger committed his crime, she would have behaved differently: depending on her mood, she might have approached the visitor, or simply ignored his bag; but she would have certainly kept watching the draughtsman.

This is what she always does, step back and observe what is around her. While boredom, the scourge of most gallery attendants, does not trouble her, a lot of other things do. Even when on holiday in Paris, she wanders outside in foul weather to "avoid the anxiety of museums".

The most memorable story of Marie's childhood was told by her great-grandfather, Ted, who had also worked at the gallery. On March 10, 1914, he was on duty when a woman in grey walked over to Velázquez's Rokeby Venus and attacked the painting with a meat cleaver, skilfully concealed inside her clothes. It was Mary Richardson, who did this to protest against the imprisonment of a fellow suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Ted dashed to her, but slipped on the floor, too late to do anything. Listening to his story, time and again, Marie "loved him just a tiny bit more for not reaching her in time".

Pages dedicated to Richardson (whose autobiography, Laugh a Defiance, Aridjis mentions as one of her sources) make some of the best prose in Asunder. Pondering the act in which one woman tries to destroy another in the name of a third, the author quotes the "extravagantly anatomical" report published by The Times the next day - "a cruel wound in the neck, for three or four inches it runs almost vertically, and spreads out an inch wide" - before recreating the history of women's suffrage in a series of her own snapshots: "The unbending of an angle in a greater geometry of disruption. … Canvas and cleaver, the shudder of steel instruments, the pounding heart of the racehorse, the trembling hand of a wardress forced to carry out the doctor's orders."

This is one of those books where the plot has enough suspense to keep your attention till the end, yet its main strength is in its imagery. "Goths huddled in corners like packed umbrella stands" rival "crocodiles suspended in shallow water like strips of bark". As the narrator thinks about the term craquelure, used by restorers to describe cracks in paintings, among her allusions are "the allure of the crack, the lure of the crackle, the lair of the kraken".

Unable to sleep, she compares her mind to "an occupied lift travelling up and down the shaft of a building, never stopping at any floor to release its passengers", and the feeling of insomnia she creates is strong. Such powers of observation and skills with metaphor are refreshing and never fail to fascinate.

Asunder is sparsely populated by characters, much as Marie's life is with other people. Her best friend Daniel works at the Tate, also as an attendant, walks with a limp - the result of a strange accident that started with a headache and led to a wrong "rewiring" - and writes poetry in his spare time, corresponding with like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world. Wondering "whether perhaps the right female for him had become extinct", he treats Marie as a soulmate (and she reciprocates), nothing more, until their trip to Paris - but even then his love for poetry takes centre stage. The tension increases as they stay in a flat still filled with minutiae of another couple's past, and then an unexpected visitor arrives, and with him another twist in the plot.

Daniel's self-absorption is scrutinised with precision and often humour. One of his poems, about a circus elephant's collision with a bus, is summarised laconically: "The driver died, Dora died, as well as six passengers, their wounds described in chilly detail." Other characters include the heroine's flatmate, Jane, a girl with dictatorship traits who dates Marie's former love interest, and a handful of colleagues from the gallery, one of whom dies at his post in the first chapter, leaving the narrator to go over his final moments.

As Marie's story unfolds, we learn that she, too, is no stranger to violent thoughts. What outlet will she find for them? Will her "ever greater feats of self-control" culminate in something as dramatic as the mauling of the Rokeby Venus? On her last day at the gallery, Marie looks at the painting in a way she has never done before - and sees her own face, "that of a pale woman with a jagged black fringe and longish nose" in the mirror held up before the most beautiful woman in mythology. This gaze is one of the many depicted in the novel: in one scene, Marie and Jane are reflected in the same mirror, two female faces not entirely dissimilar, and this serves as a prologue to a more dramatic turn of events. Standing in the room with Venus, Marie is once again lost in the story that was her great-grandfather's, but is now truly her own: "I wondered if Mary Richardson too had caught a quick glimpse of herself in this mirror."

Even more significance is given to the way men look at women: "The male gaze, nothing seemed free of it." This provides another, deeper analogy with Berger: in Ways of Seeing, he talked about how "men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." Forty years on, and nearly a century since Richardson's attempt to change the balance of things in the world, one still cannot say that the two sexes do the acting and the appearing in equal measure.

 

Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.