Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin
Translated from the Dutch by David Doherty
Before I tell you more about this exquisite short novel by Dutch author, Peter Terrin, I’d like to expound briefly on the glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix – it is the one we all love to see, raced over the streets of Monte Carlo – never mind that there are so few opportunities for overtaking that it becomes a tactical race based upon pit stop timing, it just has that film star quality that makes it so exciting to watch. I holidayed near Nice back in 2003, and imagine how we rubbed our hands with glee when we realised that our day trip to Monaco was just days before the Grand Prix. They were busy erecting grandstands and crash barriers, getting the town ready, and you could still drive the circuit… so we did!
From the top left: After the critical first bend, you’re straight into the Beaurivage climb (1) and up Massenet towards the Casino. Sadly no photo of the casino, but then towards the Mirabeau and the Grand Hotel Hairpin (2), round Mirabeau Bas (3) into the Tunnel (4)(5) then the Nouvelle Chicane around the Swimming Pool (6)(7) see the grandstands (8), just before Racasse (9) and the Virage Anthony Noghes and up to the Finish Line (10).
Now take yourself back to the early 1960s. Just imagine the buzz in Monte Carlo on Grand Prix day. Final preparations are being made to the cars on the grid. The drivers are getting ready. There’s some time before the race starts. the Monaco Royal Family, Prince Rainier and his American wife Grace Kelly are in the grandstand. This is the scene that starts Terrin’s novel – however from the very first words, we know that something will go wrong.
The fire is not yet fire. Not quite. But the high-grade fuel that has just leaked from the Sutton is no longer liquid. It is, at this instant, changing form, a brutal transition accompanied by what some will describe as a roar – a cliché, as in fact it is the sound of a creature gasping for oxygen, an immense beast. Not yet fire but a colourless cloud of heat, invisible for now in the bright sunlight of this unseasonably warm spring day in Monte Carlo.
Jack Preston is one of the chief mechanic on the Sutton team. He’s on the grid, busy covering over the advertising on the car with tape – the BBC won’t broadcast the pictures otherwise. He is the man in the wrong place at the right time, also the right place at the wrong time.
It is customary for celebrities to appear on the grid – and here she is – the young starlet everyone adores; DeeDee. Jack thinks she is looking towards him, but it’s the Prince, behind, coming down to meet her. As she passes, the fire that is not yet fire, finally becomes fire. Jack shields DeeDee and they’re thrown against a hoarding. A woman in the crowd captures it on a photo. Jack is badly burned, all down his back. DeeDee escaped without a scratch. What’s more, DeeDee’s bodyguard is being credited with being the hero, pulling DeeDee from the flames, Jack – the real hero, doesn’t get a mention in the press. But in his hospital bed in Nice, he believes that DeeDee will get in touch. DeeDee is the epitome of celebrity – but more in Brigitte Bardot mould than Marilyn.
The events at the Grand Prix are the main subject of the book’s first third, but the majority of the story focuses on Jack before and after. Jack finally returns home to his wife Maureen and a long convalescence. He still believes that DeeDee will eventually thank him for saving her life. But as no communications arrive, he broods, he obsesses. In pain, unable to work, he begins to slide into depression, he becomes deeply troubled and mentally unstable as everyone’s impressions of him as a hero leach away; they have other heroes in space now.
Terrin’s portrait of Jack takes us right from his early days tinkering with the farm tractor to his descent into madness. As rendered into English by translator Doherty, there is a beautiful simplicity to the text which captures the complexity of Jack’s emotions perfectly. There’s a kind of restrained quality about Terrin’s writing, which I also felt when I read Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (reviewed here). If there is such a thing as a Dutch novelistic style, I really like it! Both writers also describe their settings particularly vividly. Any dreaminess in Terrin’s novel is contrasted with the compelling nature of the plot, which is perfectly formed, bookended as it is by a quote from Bowie’s Space Oddity, and the moon landings. (10/10)
I’m now very much looking forward to reading more by Terrin, The Guard is already on my shelves!
Source: Own copy
Peter Terrin (trans David Doherty), Monte Carlo, (Maclehose, 2017) hardback, 160 pages.