September 2004

Iris Benaroia

fiction

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

Star-crossed lovers might drink a dram of poison. A Russian adulteress might throw herself in front of a train. And a homosexual with a fondness for gadflys might take liberties with the affection of his beloved dog. What would you do for love? Or put another way, what would you do to avoid being alone? It’s a question looming in Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes, an author who deservedly was selected as on of Granta’s best young British writers. The Guardian called him “the best new writer in Britain.”

Timoleon Vieta is sensational in every sense. A succinct, perfect, acerbic little book, it’s also done a good job of offending schoolmarms. Bullocks to them, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s pretty too with drawings by Vien Thuc, an artist the author met in Vietnam. Sad black-and-white dog silhouettes with mawkish captions such as “What should I think about when my lovely master’s going downtown?” and “I’d be very happy to accept something from compassion.” Though, to be sure, I liked these sentiments. They fit with the book’s fairy-tale quality.

At the core of the “sentimental journey” is Cockroft. The aging and deposed English TV producer and sometimes writer, who has good intentions but a faulty social barometer that is the ruin of his career. Then there’s Timoleon Vieta, the dog whose “eyes were as pretty as a little girl’s,” and who shares lingua franca with Cockroft. Life is rattling along, just the two of them in the villa in Italy when the Bosnian shows up. An Iago, he’s a fraud and a guttersnipe, and Timmy V. knows it, but Cockroft, naturally, doesn’t. (Who was it that says if the dog don’t like you, you’re no damn good?) Love-starved Cockroft dumbly opens his door, his liquor cabinet and his bed to the Bosnian -- who’s straight, incidentally, but will engage in a toss with Cockroft for room and board.

What ensues is a tale of wits. Cockroft coddling the Bosnian, the Bosnian scheming, and Timmy V. gradually being ousted in one heartbreaking swoop. The book is chock full of Italo Calvino-like embedded stories, in the sense they’re pithy and symbolic, rather than developed tales. And there’s good reason. Whether it’s the story of the love between the deaf girl and the town punk in the Italian villa, the Welsh girl who gets her heart broken by a lout, or the Chinese professor who opens his heart to a little girl, the stories share a theme: love in its myriad, often wretched, forms. And in each narrative, Timmy V. is in the periphery.

Hobby readers who complain the vignettes are fledgling miss the mark. These are meant to be global representations of love; comically tragic in the manner of comedia dell’arte, or the “comedy of art,” where audiences in former times observed lavish spectacle and clever sallies between nimble actors. These theatrics weren’t about capturing real life exactly as people experience it, and Rhodes’ book is similar in that way. Fiction, good fiction at least, needles our imagination. It often strips convention or concentrates emotion to extract a universal point. In this case, love and the choices we make for love and because of love. It’s a theme that’s been around since Romeo and Juliet, or Anna and Vronsky. And Rhodes handles it well.

Despite the ending, which left me so distressed I felt as though I had swallowed a pair of stilettos, I wish I could do it all over again. Love for the first time, that is.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
Harvest Books
ISBN: 0156029952
240 Pages