The art of self deceit
Annelies Verbeke’s new novel, Vissen redden (Saving Fish), is imbued with the pain of love lost. After writer Monique Champagne is left by her boyfriend Thomas, she turns away from literature, finding a new purpose in life, denouncing the dramatic decline of the world’s fish stocks. When asked to by an organisation to do a literary interlude at international conferences on fishing, she travels to Tallinn, and from there to Athens and Lisbon, on to Istanbul – although her performance there is cancelled – and to inhospitable Vladivostok.
In Tallinn, she meets an Austrian, who gives her the manuscript of his new novel to read. Knowing that if it is an autobiography, she should be careful of what he is hiding, but adrift in her pain, she spends a drunken night with him. Equally recklessly, she pretends to be someone else when a strange woman mistakes her for a long lost friend, and spends several days with her. In Vladivostok, she is convinced that her deepest desires can be fulfilled by a man she meets at the hotel, until it turns out he is active in illegal fishing. On the way home, she completely loses control of herself at the airport. She has lost the will to live, but, in a beautiful final scene, she survives her attempt at suicide through drowning. Monique’s preoccupation with fish and her obsession to save them arises from her awareness that man is the evolutionary descendant of fish, which came ashore 375 million years ago. Emotionally powerless and defeated, searching for her identity and meaning in her life, Monique attempts, equally foolishly and riskily, to escape her inner pain and grief. Through saving fish, she tries to save humanity, and eventually herself. Thus, the fact that she is washed ashore after she has tried to drown herself takes on a deep symbolic meaning.
Monique Champagne with her complex emotional life and bizarre obsession is a fascinating character. Her ecological mission involves the reader in an acute problem faced by the whole world, not one you would expect in a literary context. No less original is how impressively Verbeke has interwoven Monique’s personal account with the theory of evolution; laced with Verbeke’s typically contrary, ambiguous, laconic humour. Vissen redden is an intelligent, impressive novel.