If you haven’t yet ordered your copy of Foreigners, Drunks and Babies, we hope this review might whet your appetites (details of the book can be found below the review).
from Poets’ Tales by David Cooke
A poet, translator and editor, Peter Robinson has now, with Foreigners Drunks and Babies, published his first collection of short stories. Thematically varied and wide-ranging, the stories are set in locations that mirror Robinson’s own trajectory from the North of England to Japan via Italy. It would seem also, with references to the activities of the Provisional IRA and Soviet cultural exchanges in the 1980s, that they have accumulated over many years. However, striking a somewhat different note from most of the pieces collected here, ‘The Academy Report’, Robinson’s opener, is set in an imaginary eastern empire. It is the monologue of a man of letters addressing his late emperor’s daughter. The Byzantine twists and turns of its syntax are reminiscent of some of Kafka’s parables, while its debunking of literary orthodoxy and the shenanigans associated with literary awards make an interesting comparison with Sweeney and Williams’ Death Comes for the Poets. Similar concerns form the subject matter of ‘A Mystery Murder’, albeit in a more recognizably contemporary setting. A poet and academic, who has worked abroad for many years, receives an invitation to take part in a symposium evaluating the current state of poetry. The literary equivalent of a country house murder mystery, it seems that those involved are more concerned with back-stabbing and hatchet jobs rather than anything lethal. Elsewhere Robinson’s eye for paradox and absurdity is used to brilliant effect in ‘National Lottery’, where an unfortunate chain of circumstances in the narrator’s past makes it almost impossible to provide his child with a passport.
Enjoyable as these pieces are, there is more to Robinson than witty send-ups and literary navel-gazing. In several stories there is an emotional depth that is memorable and affecting. ‘Music Lessons’, set in a northern industrial town, explores the tensions between a father and his son. The parent, a liberal-minded vicar, is keen for his son to play the piano, an opportunity he has always regretted not having. Not since Marguerite Duras’ Moderato Cantabile have I read a more convincing description of the mute defiance of a reluctant pupil. By the time that the lessons have built up to a crescendo of hopelessness, the tale modulates into another key when the father, whose past is more colourful than we might have imagined, starts to fulfil his own ambition by taking lessons himself. Unfortunately, small-mindedness and a whiff of scandal bring his aspirations to an abrupt conclusion.
In ‘Lunch with M’ the action is again rooted in family tensions – this time the rivalry between two brothers. The narrator, who is gay and has lived for many years in Italy, upsets his more conventional brother by not letting the family know that his flight would be delayed. Rebuked for his oversight, he sighs, ‘Only the family would talk to me like this.’ When, out of the blue, the two brothers are invited to dine with ‘M’, a former head of MI6, Robinson again subtly changes his focus, as the brothers start to ponder their father’s relationship with this enigmatic figure.
Having lived so long in Japan and having family ties with Italy, it is no surprise that Robinson’s antennae are finally attuned to cultural differences. In ‘Pain Control’ an Italian woman is negotiating the streets of Liverpool to visit her boyfriend. However, her difficulties in coming to terms with the bustle of a foreign city are no more complex than the vicissitudes of her on/off love affair. Mistaken for a minor royal who is that day scheduled to visit the hospital, she sees herself finally as ‘only me, my flesh and blood and bones, a bewildered self in that foreign land alone’. However, the most powerful studies of alienation included here are those set in Japan.
In ‘From the Stacks’ a British academic in a Japanese university feels as if he doesn’t really exist because there is no obvious grouping to which he can attach himself. Seeking some kind of refuge, he spends hours alone in the labyrinthine stacks of the university’s library, where he discovers an old letter written by a wife to her husband. During the course of his researches into the origins of the letter he becomes increasingly obsessed with the relationship between the wife and husband and their relationship with Japan.
In ‘Foreigners, Drunks and Babies’ Robinson again negotiates the minefield of Japanese social conventions. When the narrator learns that one of his former students has died by her own hand, he is forced to examine the ambivalence of his relationship with her. The story builds up to a devastating climax when he has no choice but to confront the true nature of his feelings and a betrayal that has undermined his marriage. Beautifully crafted and richly textured, Foreigners Drunks and Babies is an impressive body of work which deserves to gain a wider readership beyond those already familiar with the author’s work as a poet.
The London Magazine (February/March 2014), pp. 141-3.