You know that jaded, disconsolate feeling that sometimes comes over you when you’re travelling in foreign countries? You’re in places you’ve dreamed of visiting, seeing things you’ve always wanted to see, and yet you can’t feel the excitement you think you should feel, that you want to feel. You can’t help thinking, as Simon does in the first section of All That Man Is, “What am I doing here?” Mixed in with beautiful cities, luxurious hotels, quaint villages and dramatic stretches of mountain or sea, there are motorways, sleazy pubs, rental car outlets, airports, industrial wasteland and polluted canals, dingy hotels, sad streetwalkers. The life of the city goes on around you, and you’re a stranger. “What am I doing here?” could be the epigraph for the book.
Szalay mixes an intriguing blend of funny, chilling, touching and ruthless people and situations in nine episodes, which some have described as short stories, but which seem to me to have a closer organic link than that. The European Union is not only their common setting, but a big part of their theme: the mundane ease of travel, the ubiquity of English, and the spread of international brands in everything from cars to cigarettes have made of individual countries one borderless space in which nobody is really at home. Even the hard-nosed Kristian, the whatever-it-takes reporter, sometimes has the feeling that he’s a long way from home. That nobody’s there for him if it all goes wrong. One of the things the retired civil servant, Tony, in the last story, is proudest of is his minor part in negotiating, over many years, the expansion of the European Union, and yet he is aware how weightless, how intangible, how even strangely fictitious, his achievements feel…
The nine central characters are all on the move, for business, pleasure, duty or in search of some nebulous consolation, through France, Belgium, Cyprus, Budapest, London, Dresden, Krakow, Copenhagen, Cordoba, Scotland, Croatia, Italy, Corfu, Monaco. They’re also travelling though the stages of life, from 17 to 73. Bovine young Bernard, a lazy stew of hormones, has an unusual sexual adventure in Cyprus; the smug mediaevalist Karel is rudely distracted from the piece he’s writing for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology by the inconveniences of being a human being in the real world; the estate agent James, trying to flog substandard holiday units in the Alps, has an existential crisis (This is it. This is all there is. There is nothing else.) A Russian oligarch floats fruitlessly around in his 2.5 million dollar yacht reminiscing about the sushi he once had delivered by private jet from London to Ulaanbaatar (the most expensive takeaway in history), watching his offshored billions melt away and trying to get the nerve to commit suicide; a Hungarian standover man silently adores the call-girl he’s been hired to protect as she works the luxury hotels of London; 73-year-old Tony struggles to feel part of something larger, something…something permanent.
Szalay does a very good job of capturing the flux of how life feels to us from youth through to age, from 22-year-old Bernard – He is aware of nothing except the heat of the sun. The heat of the sun. Life – to Tony in the last section of the book: That world – that subjective experience of the world – which for him is the world, will not in fact outlast him. It is the ending of that stream of perception that seems so strange. So unimaginable. He is staring at the enormous walnut wardrobe that stands on the far wall of the room, and he is aware, in an unusual way, of that stream of perception, Of perceiving things. Of the pleasure of perceiving things.
It’s a vibrant, alert, edgy book that kept me constantly interested and engaged. I’m not sure, though, that the title does it any favours – it seems at the same time banal and a bit pompous. It’s been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker, so there’ll probably be translations. I’ll be interested to see their titles.