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Friday 22 August 2014

Review: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Faber, €23.75

Peter Carey

Published 23/04/2012 | 06:00

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HE DAZZLED us in 2010 with Parrot and Olivier in America, his endearingly fanciful and witty tale based on Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th-Century exploration of the new concept of democracy, a book that balanced relaxed erudition with exuberant fun.

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Now with The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey explores lost love, private grief and the 19th Century craze for horological automatons, again adroitly mixing fact and fiction and keeping the reader on his toes in a story not short on mysteries and unexplained allusions.

Set partly in a London museum in 2010, partly in 1854 in Germany, this novel teases us with, among other delights, several drawings of uncertain provenance, one showing a duck (later referred to as the swan) with an authentic-seeming catalogue number as caption. The duck, to explain, is an automaton, which the trusty Concise Oxford defines as "a piece of mechanism with concealed motive power" -- in this case a type of clockwork.

If this seems a bit mysterious, it's because crystal clarity and quotidian storytelling are not the novelist's aim this time. Even at the end I was pursuing a number of what seemed to me to be loose ends.

In the Swinburne Museum, London, Catherine Gehrig, a conservator and expert on horology, is grieving for her lately dead lover, Matthew, a married man with whom she has had a secret relationship for years. Her sorrow is loud, messy and alcoholic; to her aid comes a senior colleague, one of the few who knew of her affair. He presents her with a large package containing an unassembled automaton and some diary pages written by Henry Brandling, a long-dead Englishman. To these fragments she will apply her skills and, in theory, get over her grief.

We switch from this first-person narrative to Brandling -- it's 1854 and he's in Germany -- and his quest for an elaborate automaton to console his seriously ill son back in England. Brandling is a complex character: "One cannot claim that sanity has been, so to speak, one's birthright," he announces disarmingly, and his reactions to some of the "foreigners" he encounters are extreme.

In his early pursuit of an automaton, Brandling mentions "the original" by Vaucanson -- which sent me racing to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sure enough he was a real person. Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) is described as "a prolific inventor of robot devices of significance for modern industry". And his creations did include a duck automaton capable of "imitating the motions of a live duck" as well as the motions of drinking, eating and "digesting". The Britannica is too polite, it seems, to mention the clockwork bird's ability to defecate, which is noted in the novel.

So we have, in alternating chapters, Catherine trying to re-assemble the duck, or swan (I lost the significance of this transition somewhere) while tossed in her sea of sorrow and vodka, and Henry trying to get a facsimile of Vaucanson's creation made by variously eccentric persons of horological expertise, in Karlsruhe. While Catherine pines for her dead lover, Henry worries desperately about his ill son. Both come across as self-obsessed characters one might tend to avoid in real life, but each has considerable virtues too. There's plenty of knowledgeable stuff about horology -- I was reminded of the late John Updike and his love of the arcane -- and Catherine only has to look at a tiny screw to know that it dates from before 1841. Other screws had "a standard Whitworth thread with a set angle of 55 degrees". All this she had learned "when I was 10 years old sitting beside my grandfather at his bench in Clerkenwell". Such detail, and the feeling of a mystery gradually being solved, is never boring in the hands of Carey.

Catherine, capable of great joy as well as sadness, and firmly non-religious, reflects that Descartes said animals were automata. "I have always been certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him saying the same held true for human beings."

Sinister-seeming minor characters frolic through the narrative, especially in the German sequences, like Dickensian grotesques, and the underlying tone of The Chemistry of Tears is a kind of heightened melancholy, laced, though, with Carey's liberal feeling for fun and games. And with Henry, there are robust expressions of optimism too: "If we Brandlings have sometimes lost our wits or our fortunes on the horses we have also -- this is the other side of the coin -- known that the impossible was possible nine times out of 10. That was the basis of our fortune." The title? Well one character claims that tears produced by emotion "are chemically different from those we need for lubrication". I present that proposition to the reader without comment.

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