By Miles AllinsonFiction Scribe Publications
Fever of Animals
Winner of the Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Award 2014
With the small inheritance he received upon his father’s death, Miles has come to Europe on the trail of the Romanian surrealist, who disappeared into a forest in 1967. But in trying to unravel the mystery of Bafdescu’s secret life, Miles must also reckon with his own.
Faced with a language and a landscape that remain stubbornly out of reach, and condemned to wait for someone who may never arrive, Miles is haunted by thoughts of his ex-girlfriend, Alice, and the trip they took to Venice that ended their relationship.
Uncanny, occasionally absurd, and utterly original, Fever of Animals is a beautifully written meditation on art and grief.
Miles Allinson’s debut novel, Fever of Animals, is an assured, inventive exploration of love, loss, creativity and identity, with a metafictional wink at the reader that dares us to make assumptions about the link between author and narrator (both named Miles). The narrator is a twentysomething artist who’s realised that his talent is too slight to build a career on, and has redirected his ambition into an obsession with obscure (fictional) surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu, who mysteriously disappeared in a Romanian forest. This distant, storied loss is intertwined with two immediate, intimate ones: the death of Miles’ father and the disintegration of his relationship with his first love, Alice. Allinson writes perceptively about young, self-absorbed love: Miles is besotted with Alice, but deliberately evades her imperfect authentic self in favour of his projected fantasy of her. Fever of Animals isn't an exercise in invention or cleverness for its own sake: it’s a genuine and genuinely complex attempt to understand the nature of love and loss, rendered in crisp, painterly prose that is a pleasure to read.
Or maybe, after all, it should begin on the plane, mid-air above those squares of damp green pasture as we moved away from London. That was more than five years ago now. It was there, as the first round of drinks was being served at last, that I read of the death of Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch’ in one of the many newspapers I had carried aboard in order to distract myself from other thoughts. During the final years of her life, so I discovered, the only conversations Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch’ was able to conduct in her own language took place in her dreams. She was the last living speaker of Eyak, an indigenous Alaskan language that had ceased to exist with her death, some six months earlier. In Eyak, her name had meant ‘a sound that calls people from afar’, although in English she was better known as Marie Smith Jones. There was a word in Eyak, apparently, Xuqu’liilx’aax’ch’kk’sh, which once meant ‘Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly?’ Now it doesn’t mean anything, I thought, and even if someone heard it spoken in a dream, they wouldn’t understand.
At the time, I was sitting beside a Swiss architect to my left, whose name I can’t remember, and to my right, closest to the window, a Brazilian woman called something like Uta, who, because of her cold, was wearing over her mouth one of those paper masks that became popular in Asia during the SARS epidemic, and years later, in Mexico, during the early weeks of swine flu. Above this, Uta had also attached a sleeping-mask so that her faceless head seemed to hang beside the window and startled me whenever I tried, in my sleeplessness during the innumerable hours that followed, to catch sight of Africa or Portugal floating in the sea far below.
Years later, I would return to Europe beside two other strangers – but not to what I was leaving behind, not to anything I would have been able to recognise then as my life. To be honest, the many times I have left somewhere by plane have become confused in my memory. The different moments of exaltation or grief or fatigue all intermingle now, just as the first smell of spring brings back all the other springs to overwhelm me. I remember leaving somewhere in China, for instance, and it seems appropriate, although I know this happened years later. It was the Chinese New Year. The reworks had just begun. Beneath us the wide, darkened city was silently throwing up tiny fistfuls of light. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye, they seemed to be saying.
I suppose I should be careful then. Which mixture of emotion am I thinking of when I think of that journey home from London? Which fear or despair belongs to that moment, and which is a subsequent version, or just a story I have told myself? Which particular feeling of loss, I wonder, should I ascribe to those foodcourts at Heathrow, to those giant ornamental goldfish circling in their dreary pond at Changi? I see myself walking away from Alice through the long airport corridors, but Alice never came to the airport. She wished, she said, that she had never met me. I see her turn away from the terminal and walk out into the London rain, but it was not raining. And as I sit here in K., now, this gloomy little German town, in this tiny, frosted room, writing these words, it is always Alice who appears first in my mind, even though I remember thinking that nothing would ever supplant that strange reality, which was calling me home to Melbourne to see my father, who had suddenly begun to die.
I often recall that plane trip home. It comes at me out of the blue some days. I was twenty-seven years old, and I was no longer an artist, although I could not recall ever wanting to be anything else. I remember the smooth edge of the runway where a field of pale-green weeds suddenly fell away into the distance below us. I remember the feeling of dull vertigo, and I remember a wave of clear grief as the plane finally left the ground. It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly as that, so that the part which is over tilts away, and another part – the future, for instance – begins.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist