Up jumped the devil

Posted on April 29, 2006

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By Darran Anderson

On first appearances Nick Cave seems a most unusual Australian. From a nation most associated with easy living and sundrenched surfers the Byronic singer-songwriter seems strangely out of synch. His albums have cast him in the roles of fire and brimstone preacher, a riverbank murderer, a gothic poet more akin to dying of TB in some Carpathian attic, too pale and interesting to be from the land of beaches and barrier reefs. But our stereotypes are there to be toppled and ridiculed. For Australia is a land haunted by a dark forgotten history. It’s the land of the Rum Corps, bush ghosts and the Eureka rebels raising the Southern Cross flag, the iron-masked Irish outlaw Ned Kelly, the explorer Burke exploring the interior on camels wasted on rum, Gray dying strapped upright to his mount, Wills recording death as it stalked them, another named Leichhardt who simply disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s a land where they named peaks Mount Hopeless, Mount Destruction, Mount Disappointment, where anthropologists took photos of the aborigines convinced they were a doomed endangered species, a land to which the immigrants brought TB, syphilis and drink. This is the land that Nick Cave has wandered in from, the locale of his brilliant new Western The Proposition and, if not the exact setting, it’s a terrain at the very black soul of his modern classic And The Ass Saw An Angel.

In his finest lyrical moments (‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Tupelo’, ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’) Nick Cave distils the extremes of life: transcendent beauty and unremitting horror. And The Ass Saw The Angel takes a small glimmer of the former combined with a cornucopia of the latter. A profoundly twisted vision, it’s the Southern Gothic of Flannery O’Connor distorted to the extremes of Octave Mirbeau‘s The Torture Garden. Fixated by murder, incest, plagues and pestilence, antichrists and prostitutes, there’s something admirably punk about its brash lack of concern for the reader, for any sense of comfort or for that most unholy of artistic concepts: entertainment. Safe to say in depicting murderous inbred yokels, drunk on moonshine christened Widow’s Piss, in a language rich with “whoremongers” and “scum-cunts” there is no danger that this book will ever be endorsed by Richard and Judy.

Documenting the warped machinations of Uklore Valley the tale is narrated, in hilariously bleak fashion, by Euchrid Eucrow, a mute urchin whose troubles are compounded by the fact that he’s slowly sinking into a quagmire for the entire length of the book. Descended from generations of thieves and mountain killers (a “family tree as twisted and tangled as the briars that tortured the hills”) his father is a decrepit wretch of a man whose only earthly joy comes from snaring animals in a makeshift torture chamber/coliseum where he forces them to fight to the death. Yet as fucked-up as his father is, he pales in significance when compared to his mother.

“Ya could drag all the sewers in whoredom ‘n’ still ya wouldn’t land a sloppier, more downright low-livin’ scum monger than the hog that bore you,” his father says to him and he doesn’t lie.

“A swine – a scum-cunted, likkered up, brain-sick swine…a soak – a drunk – a piss eyed hell-bag with a taste for the homebrew,” her fearsome violent presence provides the book with a menace as chilling as the omnipotent rain, crows and plagues. The description is indicative of the book as a whole, exhibiting the kind of potent, extravagant writing that Cave revels in: baroque in language, medieval in barbarity.

It’s the sound of a writer letting loose, held back by no restraints for all the strengths and all the faults that entails. When the mix of horror, imagination and humour successfully coalesce the result is a revelation. When Cave depicts childhood for example he does so, not with the vomit-inducing cuteness common to many portrayals but, as a time of hilariously brutal egotism,

“Ah filled mah lungs with air and howled and howled and screamed and raged and gnashed and yelled out things like “Feed me!” and “Food!” and “Tit!” and all the while ah thrashed and kicked…great bloody words torn from the very pit of mah belly—”Feed me!” “O Death! Must ah starve?” and “Fucking feed me now!”

Beginning with one of the most powerful opening sequences set to paper, the book instantly blazes into the mind. Wrenched out of his drunken mother’s womb Euchrid quickly learns the ways of a cruel world when his twin brother dies in childbirth next to him. “Goodbye brother,” ah said to mahself as he slipped away, and for a full minute ah thought that ah too was going unner, so fucken cold was his dying.”

Thus begins a scene, reminiscent of the dark magic realism of Gunter Grass, where Euchrid taps to his dead brother in the Morse code they’d communicated with in the womb, “Do—Not—Forget—Your—Brother—Reply.”

While there’s nothing quite as moving, arresting or strangely beautiful as this passage there are nevertheless many astounding passages of writing and unforgettable images throughout the book, proving there’s still life in the old adage that the devil has all the best lines. One of the most memorable scenes concerns the fate of a horse called Sorrow who’s stuck fast and flailling in a swamp. Whilst one half of the attendant crowd attempt to haul it out with ropes the other half “placed cash on “the swamp” and “chanted ‘Sink! Sink! Sink!'” With deadpan humour Cave concludes simply, “Sorrow sank.”

Then there’s the image of the malevolent Fists Wiggam who ironically “lost both hands playing chicken with the cane-trolleys. His friends fled, leaving the belligerent youth to stagger two hundred yards down Maine unaided, before collapsing outside his father’s general store.”

Euchrid Eucrow watches it all. Due to his inability to speak he becomes invisible, a cowering neglected figure prone to hiding away and undertaking lone expeditions, a witness to the unfolding of the cursed history of the town. And though he is the narrator and central protagonist it is God who is the looming presence in the book. This is not the God of the New Testament, the benevolent higher being embodying forgiveness, humility and charity. No, this is a God from some lost apocryphal book of the Old Testament, one who has become as decrepit and half-mad as his followers in the valley. Named after an assassinated backwoods prophet, whose crusade stagnated with his death, Ukulore is subjected to the whims of His wrath and in spite of their faith they are punished at every turn. Rewarding their devotion with three years of non-stop crop-destroying rain He indirectly turns the town into a dystopia, a plains city where, “able-bodied men succumbed to an inertia that saw them spend more and more days on their backs, in their beds. Women sat at windows, lost in other worlds. Some bore the scars of rejection in their hearts, others upon their faces…Intemperence. Self-abuse. Gluttony. Sloth. There were some homes that took in Madness as a tenant.”

In the midst of disaster, with sugar production coming to a standstill and the death rate rising, Euchrid comes to believe he is blessed with divine purpose, “Like Ezekiel, Daniel or Jonah, the very essence of mah success was rooted in great personal catastrophe – priceless information gleaned as from the pit, or the den, or the whale’s belly.”

At first Euchrid’s mission remains unclear but it implicitly involves the townspeople. God may have gone from them but the hysterical fervour of faith had not. Almost every member of their congregation is a vile specimen from the “platoon of hags with ruckled faces disfigured by the bitter bile of their days and eyes small and yellow and mean with spite” to the hypocrite males “who wore the leg-irons both of wifedom and of whoredom” and “rattled their chains the loudest.” Following the dictates of their deformed morality they punish the good, the compassionate and the weak and are no more righteous than the alcoholic tramps who occupy the abandoned church and “embark on violent and outrageous arguments of a theological nature, which would inevitably end in Kike pitching empty bottles or cans at the Christ upon the wall.”

What emerges is a community warped and mean-spirited, one that posts the suicide note of Rebecca Swift on the church door for general ridicule after she fails in an attempt to kill herself in a flooded wishing well. Later Euchrid can only watch in silent terror as they surround the caravan of the angelic morphine-addicted prostitute Cosey Mo. The only person to treat him with kindness he watches as the villagers, many of them secret clients, brutally and collectively butcher her. Employing their twisted logic they declare Beth, the orphan of Cosey Mo, to be a saintly figure who, they believe, will one day give birth to the Messiah. Flitting from faithful servant to idolatrous blasphemer, from the sacred to the profane, Euchrid’s own heavenly undertaking (self-appointed “staff-bearer and rod-raiser to the Lord”) is on a collision course with the townsfolk and Beth, “Neither was aware of the grinding of malign cogs, neither aware that the wheels of an infernal machine were slowly rolling around. That their mute little ‘water-boy,’ as they called me, was in fact gradually filling with the stuff of treachery – that ah was the sinister shape lurking behind the curtain…Ah was His sword, sharp an keen and poised to strike. Ah glinted in the sun.”

It’s not long before events reach the point of no return. When Euchrid’s mother, the ‘queen of the trollops’, makes the mistake of drunkenly elaborating on “what a lazy old bastard Pa was and how he was going insane,” Pa reacts by losing what remnants of sanity he had left, murdering her horribly and with great violence. Having roped Euchrid into hiding her body he retires to an existence of babbling to himself all day and night, “Do ah feel guilt at what ah done? Haw haw! That’s a goddamn cracker if ever ah heard one! Did George feel guilt when he slewed the dragon?! Was David regrettin’ when he pole-axed Goliath?! No sirree! And King Jehu – did he rue the day he stomped Jezebel and fed her to the dawgs?! You’re damn right he didn’t!”

It’s a testament to Cave’s skills as a writer that whenever you think he’s reached the absolute limits he manages to continue cranking the pressure up further and further. When his father finally dies Euchrid the outcast, sensing the entire universe taunting him (“the full face of the moon laughed at me from the bottom of the drum”), begins his divine mission: setting booby traps, recruiting squealing mutilated hounds from his fathers traps, transforming his house into a fortress he calls Doghead and armed with a sickle he moves towards a cataclysmic climax.

A heady, imaginative and foreboding piece of work And The Ass Saw The Angel‘s strengths are also paradoxically its weaknesses. In a similar way to the writings of the Marquis De Sade the sheer grandiosity of Cave’s revelations have the effect of enchanting and exhausting the reader. It is writing pitched at an incredibly high pressure, a crazed opera with the intentionally oppressive atmosphere of a nightmare, and thus over several hundred pages it’s by no means easy reading. To cite a musical equivalent consider the effects of listening to nothing but Joy Division or PiL‘s ‘Death Disco’ for a prolonged period of time—you are left thirsting for a gleam of light in the total darkness. Nevertheless it’s an unforgettable, stunning piece of work, a journey to the depths of religious faith that leaves you sullied but undeniably and profoundly stirred. Since it’s first publication in 1989 world events have demonstrated the prophetic nature of Cave’s novel. Once a quaint anachronism, seemingly heading for the dustbin of history, religion has reasserted itself with a vengeance. And despite the rare incidence of positive religious resurgence (the liberation theology movement in Latin America for example), Cave’s novel is more relevant than ever in today’s climate when by and large God and shared humanity are subjugated in favour of blind faith and the Law. In an age of suicidal zealots and tabloid witchhunts, when fundamentalist lunatics seek to roll back the Enlightenment, picket the funerals of young people beaten to death for the crime of being attracted to the same sex (see Matthew Shepard), or fly packed passenger planes into skyscrapers Cave’s book seems terrifyingly prescient. Such are the times we are living in. In the words of Dante, abandon hope all ye who enter.

And The Ass Saw The Angel by Nick Cave
Penguin
320 Pages

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Posted in: Reading