Robert Twigger, known for his true-life stories, embarks on a new adventure with his magical first novel, Dr Ragab's Universal Language.
Incredible journey: Robert Twigger's first novel
Robert Twigger has crossed North America in a birch bark canoe, searched for the lost oasis of Zezura in the Egyptian Sahara and found a 30-foot python in the remote jungles of Indonesia. But fiction may be his greatest adventure of all.
As the author of hilarious, "boy's own" books about each of these madcap schemes, it is perhaps natural that his first novel should also be a rip-roaring journey - rip-roaring and labyrinthine. It's worth taking a deep breath before launching into Dr Ragab's Universal Language. The novel begins in modern-day England as the narrator embarks on the dull job of writing the history of a German aluminium company. Before long he uncovers the diary of a man called Hertwig and realises there's something more to the assignment.
Hertwig was imprisoned in a bunker that, ironically, he built himself in order to hide a young girl during the Second World War. In the diary he realises that the only way he can escape is to recall the teachings of Dr Ragab, a mysterious and unconventional doctor in 1920s Cairo who believes in a magical "universal language" that can give the speaker special powers. This triggers increasingly outlandish tales of Hertwig's time with Ragab and of life in a monastery, in the war and in Cairo. Intrigued and confused? Dr Ragab's Universal Language is surreal and mystical. And for Twigger, writing it was just as much fun as joining the Tokyo Riot Police for a year. Which, incidentally, he's also written a book about.
"I'd always wanted to do a book like this," he says from his Cairo home. "I know this sounds strange with the kind of things I've got up to in the past, but there's material in non-fiction that's impossible to include because it would just seem really mad and unbelievable. We all know that life is a lot stranger than people imagine, but even so, that doesn't mean that you can make people believe incredible things in a non-fiction book. But fiction is a way you can make unbelievable things seem believable."
And unbelievable things certainly happen in Dr Ragab's Universal Language, not least via Dr Ragab, a "doctor of everything" who cures King Ismail's young son of kleptomania in return for gold in the 1800s. He uses his musical skills to repair a misfiring steam engine in a cotton mill. His enchanting universal language is a powerful magic dictionary in which each letter comes with a posture. Using it gives the speaker a clear mind and the ability to do special things. Hertwig painstakingly learns it, and you sense that piecing together such a slippery, ever-changing tale was just as assiduous for Twigger.
"It was far more difficult for me than non-fiction, I'll give you that," he laughs. "But I've always liked the idea of master and disciple. You get that in my non-fiction in a way. Learning martial arts in Angry White Pyjamas and the canoe craft in Voyageur is all about passing on ancient skills. Here, I guess I wanted to see how far I could go in writing about the invisible world rather than the visible one.
"If I was trying to describe Dr Ragab's Universal Language, I would say it's an old format welded together in what I think is a new way. So you've got the sorcerer's apprentice section, you've got Hertwig imprisoned with nameless thugs, which is a common motif from movies of course, and then the modern bit." That would be where the book starts and ends. In a way, it feels the most autobiographical: the unnamed narrator is a writer and, at the start, walks from Bristol to South London via wartime bunkers (known as pillboxes). It is not only a neat echo of the bunker Hertwig is imprisoned in but also of Twigger's real-life adventures. The narrator calls it the Pillbox Way, which almost sounds like the material for another Twigger non-fiction book.
"It was potentially a book but it got shot down in flames by so many people that I thought I should probably listen to them," Twigger says. "The Pillbox Way does exist as a walk, though: I even suggested doing a section of it for Will Self for his book Psychogeography, but we never got it together." So, despite being a magical romp, the book has a basis in reality. Twigger says the key to any novel's success is making something that is obviously false (it's fiction, after all) feel true. His approach, therefore, is to make the building blocks of the story as credible as possible - hence a modern section in the book that we can all recognise. Of course, the notion of a universal language is a little harder to imagine.
"It's rooted in truth," says Twigger. "In the 16th and 17th centuries they really did try and construct these universal languages, some of which are very complicated. They all had this idea that whenever people speak, they start uttering untruths - which goes back to a more ancient idea of the first language, the perfect language. Surely, though, there's a big jump between being interested in the history of a universal language and having the confidence to make it the basis of a sprawling novel. Twigger says the idea was too intriguing not to tackle.
"Don't you think it's fascinating that somebody could be like Doctor Dolittle and somehow know the rhythm of the universe? We've all met someone who seems to have a better idea about the way the world works. They seem to make fewer mistakes than most people, don't they? They're more in tune. But I didn't want the hero to be typically heroic. I wanted him to be more elusive, more interesting than that and much more dynamic."
It's not just Dr Ragab who is dynamic. Cairo becomes a larger than life, richly drawn city in Twigger's hands and almost a character in its own right. It overwhelms Hertwig as he tries to convey the "smell of the East, its glorious bejewelled majesty" in his diary. (Perhaps it sums up Twigger's shifting relationship with the place; he is an Englishman who has moved to Cairo with his family.) When Hertwig arrives, the first thing he does is buy a knife to guard against his disorientation.
"I definitely wanted to exaggerate Cairo," Twigger says. "Often in non-fiction I try and change people's perceptions of a place by winding the descriptions down, if you see what I mean. But here I wanted to convey this guy's amazement. Because he's travelled there as a missionary in a way, he's entranced by the idea of the place. All of the things in Cairo I have seen at one point are concentrated a whole load more in the book."
In the book and in real life, Twigger revels in the culture of Cairo. He's full of anecdotes about the place and the people: once he was stranded at a Saharan oasis 370 kilometres from home and bumped into a man who recognised his car from the street where it was usually parked in Cairo. He happened to know where a secret stockpile of petrol was hidden nearby, and Twigger was saved. "That sort of thing literally happens all the time in Egypt - those completely out of the blue coincidences," he chuckles. And sure enough, Dr Ragab alludes to the "science of coincidence" in the book, and Hertwig only comes into contact with Ragab after "several extraordinary coincidences - too extraordinary to ask anyone to believe".
"Just when you're totally exhausted by everything going wrong, something will turn up," Twigger says. "In the West, things are more regimented and rule bound. There's not a latitude for things to happen off the cuff. Obviously, that also means that things run on time but there aren't the opportunities for minor miracles to occur." And, as his many true-life tales prove, believing in coincidence and that things will turn out all right is important. Writing fiction hasn't dulled his spirit of adventure: his next quest is to re-enact the 19th-century German explorer Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs' journey from Dakar Oasis to Siwa Oasis by camel - a 60--kilometre trip across the Sahara that Twigger is looking for "fit and crazy enough" people to join him on. So what is it about these escapades that still excite him?
"Exploring, which is a macro-adventure, is just a sequence of what I've taken to calling micro-adventures. You could have one today - get a toy inflatable boat and take it up some grungy city river or something. Walk the Pillbox Way. It's about having an adventure, something you couldn't predict when you left the house that morning, something that tests you a bit, stretches you, provides a situation where you can control the risk yourself. In modern life we aren't allowed to control the risk but if you venture into the wilderness you're on your own and you can choose your risk level."
Dr Ragab's Universal Language (Picador) is out now. Find out more about Robert Twigger's camel expedition at www.theexplorerschool.com.