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Elliott Henderson: Review of Departing Vienna by John Taylor

Our book group gathered in the house of Frances Stormer to discuss John Taylor’s book, Departing Vienna. John Taylor, a real live local author, came to discuss his book with us.

When he arrived, I noted his tall, debonair and imposing presence and said to someone “He looks like an ex brigadier”. She replied, “It might well be because he IS an ex-brigadier”. I do not know whether this is true but since we are dealing with fiction we might just as well take it on board. 

We had a good discussion about John’s book. He was asked why he wrote it, and he replied  “I just wanted to know what it felt like to be the author of a novel”.

He said, too, that it had taken him 5 years to write it. This piece of information caused me a pang of regret. I wondered if I could survive another 5 years to get my own novel off the block.

I found John’s novel hugely interesting and thoughtful. First of all it was a gripping read. It read like a thriller, but not a thriller in the conventional sense. It was certainly not a death-defying action-drama. I found myself turning the pages in excited anticipation at how people were going to react to the manoeuvres of the main character, Mark. 

What is astonishing about John’s book is that the unfolding of the drama hinges on the changes that Mark makes in his translation of a book written by a German author.These changes that Mark makes, on somewhat dubious moral premises, affect his whole life and transform his relationships with people he loves, not least the woman in his life.

One might think that changing the names of people in a novel one is translating would not be a propitious start for a narrative which is supposed to keep the reader interested. Far from it. From these seemingly anodyne sins a host of dramatic events emerge, which leave everyone reeling in their wake.

I found the novel quite fascinating – not just because I was gripped by what was going to happen next, but because the text was interwoven with a number of moral conundrums.These moral dilemmas emerged from the story and demanded to be resolved. But they were not resolvable and John did not give any hints about where he stood on these questions.

That is, of course, the only position a good author could take. John is simply telling a story, and rightly, in my view, avoids hectoring us with his own moral judgements.

The big moral question which emerges from the story, as I see it, is:
What is the nature of guilt? 
If we commit a crime, are we guilty forever?
Or is there a limit to our guilt? Can we expiate our crimes by - for instance - going to prison?
When Rolf Harris has served out his punishment is he free from his original stain?
I do not know the answer to these questions.

The only person who might be able to adjudicate is Frances Stormer - and she is not saying anything.

You may notice that I have not referred to the plot at all. I will leave you to find out for yourselves what happens in the book.
I can only repeat what I have said :  it is a wonderfully ingenious, thoughtful and memorable book.

Elliot Henderson