A Review of Chris Petit’s new novel PALE HORSE RIDING (Simon and Schuster, 2017)
‘War’ is ‘raw’ in reverse, and the near twinning of those two words takes an eerie hold on Chris Petit’s masterly new novel Pale Horse Riding, his successor to the joyously forbidding The Butchers of Berlin. In both books, as in all his work, he does something remarkable. Just as his seminal first film, Radio On made a glorious new wave/krautrock symphony out of suicide, and his novels from Robinson and The Hard Shoulder through to Back from the Dead and the Picador classic The Psalm Killer locate the majesty in murder and how that practice reduces all victims to a meat like state. And so it is that these new fictions take the holocaust as backdrop and stage to the dramas his protagonists encounter. Reminiscent of the Edgar Allan Poe of The Murders at the Rue Morgue and patron saint of psychopathy Derek Raymond at his Suarez tinged peak, these war stories reveal how the shimmer of evil can be picked out at midnight by slices of moon in black blood.
From the start (and in a beautiful font and design courtesy of Simon & Schuster), the pale horse whose image becomes so important passes before us, ridden in a few snatched, private hours by the commandant of Auschwitz as a coping strategy for his aims and responsibilities. Drunk to the point of distraction, his fall from the horse and a visit from the garrison doctor lead to a broad but detailed portrait of this most unlikely of characters, including conversations on the worth of women to the benefits of the black-market acquisition of furniture and fittings. Artful vignettes set the book’s themes of social exploration, intrigue and the ramifications of fallibility like blazing tent pegs in mist. The notion that the final solution caused all manner of difficulties and needs for distraction among its actual administrators is one often neglected by history. We tar the proponents of Nazism with the same black moustache and flick their dark armbands like the bra straps of the girls we can never have, or get close to, but here, in just three pages Petit essays something revolutionary: the humanity of evil, shown its everyday face. This opening profile showcases Petit’s skill as dramatist and master of ceremonies. The wide scope of the story is introduced as we move from one observation to another. When the garrison doctor is attended to by his acned prisoner housemaid, he notes that he had given her cream that ‘seemed to do nothing for her skin, or their awkward relationship,’ a common enough sounding observation perhaps, but evident of an uncanny attention to detail and the reality that rests in between spaces, which also allows us to take in every shadow and nook.
I know where the shadows lurk . . .
a character later boasts, and in this respect Petit is an expert of exposure and excavation. The prose is a writerly version of an aptly-titled film equivalent — Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil — with its genius opening shot, in which the entirety of the Mexican border and people crossing is brought into focus. So it proves here with the commandant’s coterie, outside and inside, with each one in their own way, entirely lost to the light. For Petit, it seems that every cloud has its reason, as do the nuages on earth.
It is then, the humanisation of those engaged on both sides of the struggle that makes this novel so striking. As the commandant and his black-market associate Groenke ride their horses halfway towards sunset, as a semi-desperate remedy to the frightening immediacy of their situation, an almost comic portrait of ramshackle(d) cowboys is formed; a Carrion Cowboy, no doubt, with flashes of every filmic gunslinger from Roy Rogers and the referenced Karl May, to Buster Keaton and our very own Sid James interrupting the mind and the eye.
This mix of light and dark is a feature of Petit’s work. One hears it in the soothing lugubriousness of his film narrations (similar in some ways to the godlike Werner Herzog) and one sees it on the page as he both lightens each horror and darkens the human comedy in all its insipid detail. This book, chilling in its organisation of information and careful structure, is also eminently readable, which is not always the case, sadly, in the books that the review papers shower us with every Saturday.
Petit does what only the very best writers strive to do, which is to create a credible, self sufficient world but also, far more importantly, an effective and useful worldview. As in Robinson, which I have espoused previously as a kind of ur text, the elegance, richness and visceral quality of the prose remain unsurpassed, certainly in contemporary writing. The Hard Shoulder was sparser, the Robinsonian diamond squeezed and chiselled. By the time of The Human Pool, Petit had restrained his style even more, keeping tight rein – to continue the analogy with horses – on his delivery as he sought a more commercial crossover. The exuberance of these new stories has sealed and secured that claim but what marks this sequence is the concomitant achievements of content and tone. When the Commandant foregoes wanting
to rest his head on the bosom of the seamstress and fiddle with her twat and not have a care in the world . . .
it is because he feels a sense of responsibility and leadership, a holocaust decorum if you like. Poe had few jokes. Petit has many. Chief of this is the treatment that supports his tendering of the black. Seeing individuals connected to the horror so directly, irreverence is avoided. Almost as bad as the killing and its inevitable scale, is the fact that despite it, the rest of life hurries on.
As the garrison psychiatrist spies on the commandant masturbating on one of his rides through the green, the commandant’s wife attends the opera, an equally disturbing counterpoint to the arias of jewish suffering currently playing to an audience of crowded chimneys. The corruption at the heart of the Reich is described as a cancer, and in this way two worlds of suffering are entered and we begin to see the correlations that Petit is wrenching us towards. We are all meat and fuel to each other’s intention, or purpose, to be dismissed just as quickly, as soon as we are both soiled and consumed. These books are not genre tales, nor historical fiction. Instead they expose the hysteric, through the cleverest prose, of this life.
Petit’s precise. His pen is an iris. But he broadens out into long shot with the focusing in of each eye. As Schlegel, an unwilling detective with a background in financial crime, and Morgen, an investigative prosecutor for the SS, are re-introduced, a Butch and Sundance for this new East/Western, they claim our attention with as much fluency as they did in book one of the series.
Petit’s childhood was spent following his soldier father across europe’s army bases and his conglomeration of english sensibility with near global scope allows the tight boat of his prose easy sail on the page, offering information and exposition with the utmost discretion, and making Pale Horse Riding a standalone voyager. The intricacies of the plot line of The Butchers of Berlin are encapsulated in a thumbless handful of sentences, providing the reader all of the background needed to immerse themselves in this new narrative. Coming as Petit does from cinema, he avoids the cynicism of today’s current practice, where everything is made to be sequelled or indeed prequelled, rather than tell a complete idea, by coming up with one, here an investigation into the extent of SS corruption within the top-secret and illicit world of Auschwitz and its sibling locations. This is so daring it actively challenges breath. If we are to take seriously the irrationality of the final solution in terms of simple human intent and practical motivation, we must also deal with the fact that the human character even in the most extreme situation is capable of the easiest temptation. By coming up with this story and setting his flawed heroes along this path of discovery, Petit accomplishes that rare thing in fiction, the actual honouring of the idea of fiction. He even challenges the notion of what a hero or protagonist is or can be, by framing his black hats with lines of slow silver and white. The wondrous and much missed Ken Campbell once said that he had given up reading regular fiction with its restrictions in location and behaviour, and now read only science fiction ‘because it’s about everything else!’ This great truth is wonderfully achieved by Petit as he juggles with the known and sifts through the conjecture. Here is evil extended. And the scalpel is shining that has been found to slice shit.
These tales of descending circles of hell and misdemeanour both extend and comment on the notion of what is laughably referred to as a common market by boring straight through it, almost to the point where Petit becomes a kind of European union in his own right, uniting the western reader with small details and joining the purchase of teutonic reference with a near english receipt. When Schlegel’s mother shelters a jewish woman, Sybil, whom Schlegel spies on and loves, this leads him to questioning his own sense of reality, which reaches a truly Wittgensteinian level as he questions even his own surroundings:
Why is a table called a table and not an armadillo?
When Sybil and his mother are taken by the Gestapo, Schlegel is forced into his own horrific comedown, promptly counterbalanced by a meeting arranged by Morgen in which the shadowy workings of chief bureaucrats in the SS are to be tracked and exposed. The ease with which Petit fuses notions of personal loss with public responsibility is extraordinary as we soon learn of camps within camps, petrochemical plants for which the gas chambers are both cover and fuel. A reference to Victor Scholz’s nefarious 1940 polemic
The Possibility of Recycling Gold from the Mouths of the Dead
introduces the horrifying notion of genocide being raged for dentally-derived profit, anti-semitism becoming mere novocaine. The idea of using the holocaust in this way does not in any way detract, but one passes the first eighty or so pages without it featuring in any great detail. What the book does instead is to render it as unmovable and monumental as Mount Rushmore, or any other great landmark to the fallen. It is our history, etched into the very fabric of the air, therefore responsible for the formation of our own sense of place. Unlike other modern detective or murder fiction, Petit, as Derek Raymond did previously, houses his horror in what might be called the truly believable, showing how set the standards for our own decimation have become since their point of origin, and bravely allowing sometimes for the foul breath of the real, tasting as it does of a sour heart and a blistering soul. Other populist novels, from those of Colin Dexter to Ian Rankin, defy this sense of easy acceptance through their concentration on the same set of streets or beats (how many murders in Oxford this week, Inspector Morse? Rebus, relax and put some Jackie Leven on, will ye?), but Petit, like Booth and Cleese in their still famous sitcom, makes the ‘sit’ in his ‘sitdram’ just as important as what and how things occur: WW2 and its litany of horrors, from ‘whacking the poles into shape’, to dousing the torah in lime and ash, stains and influences. The commandant confronted by Schlegel and Morgen soon loses some of his comic flair, deadening slightly while darkening too, as the true rules of horror slither their way to the fore.
Thrillers should thrill, but not always just through sensation. It is the common mistake made by the so-called popular culture. Chastening can’t be cheapened and there is no easy glory in gore. Petit is not averse to gore’s claim but the director in him makes it artful. His true thrills come from detail and the dispassionate charm of his and therefore our characters as Schlegel and Morgen grow mired in ever tightening strands of collusion and klaxons announce fumigations and cremations. A subject suspected of gold smuggling is being held in the punishment block while the inmates’ wounds are sealed over by the licking of flame. Souls are scorched.
In short, we become inmates, or worse, guards, instantly involved. From the arresting first sentence we are placed on the horse, to gain time and distance away from the grim. Its stated paleness transmogrifies an implied sense of purity, staining the white in ways that deaden as they darken. The horse is clearly the commandant’s saving grace and distraction but as an image it connects to time’s eye, as we read of the past from today.
How do we measure the scale of the evils we have both allowed and inflicted and how, through time, do we judge them? Are we not all complicit? Are we not all riding by?
If the pale horse is time and perhaps modern detachment, then it is the cold we all feel amidst the mud and the murk and the gas, making ‘the passage of the night’ our own passage into the deeper darkness within. When the commandant rides out bareback on page 99 there’s a definite shifting, as if the need for escape were slipping from his reins and control. It’s an enviable trick, leading us to participate in the horror, making the holocaust so much more than just John Thaw’s Oxford, Rankin’s ends of Scotland, or Mark Billingham’s wasted shadows. And accept it we do, as we follow Botch and Sunshifting, as the mist burns off in batches and the lakes ahead look like glass.
Petit’s a poet and not just of detachment. He combines the cloudspace with the earthy in nearly every line. From the description of the commandant as a ‘marbled emperor’, to musings on the ‘sullen heat’, seemingly acceptable phrases achieve frequency and vibration. Petit combines deep-focus views where every pore is visible with blankets of poetic effusion, and all with the firmest control. As a writer, he becomes a wonderful director of prose and as his books continue to appear and his sanguinity deepens, his role as the modern thriller genre’s sage in residence is assured. Minutiae and landscape combine in his writing, helping to establish a sense of ‘realm’, as if he were combining all his other skills and pursuits into more conventional form. It is unclear if he will continue to make films but those interested in seeing them can do no better than to read what he is currently producing. Free from commercial interference and compromise he can now (as an assured modern classic) deliver his new observations with greater and increasing sophistication. Pale Horse Riding and The Butchers of Berlin are both more accessible than previous works while being no less dense, uncanny objects of all colours and hue. They juggle moral dilemmas and place art and the way we view, receive and expect things from it on the diabolically patterned chopping block. And Petit is a gentleman butcher, attuned to blood flow and careful with sinew; as one reads one imagines him efficiently removing your leg, cut by cut. With one still handsome eyebrow half raised and a discerning gaze he will ghost you, ideally of course while you’re breathing, ready and eager to take the full weight of his tale.
This then is the book which fuses the wronged past with a truly warped present. Contemporary predilections have all been mounted and carefully placed on the plain. And so we ride on, as the story leads us now into murder, as our two dark detectives stain our hearts to seal pain. This book is a world, detailing the one the dead leave us. Its author is charting grief’s progress while riding beside us as reader and victim climb aboard that last train.
David Erdos 4/10/17 .