Bookshots: 'The Guard' by Peter Terrin
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote it?
Peter Terrin, a Dutch author who won the 2010 European Union Prize for Literature for this here book. He's published six novels and two collections of short stories and also won the 2012 ECI Literatuurprijs for his novel Post mortem.
Plot in a box:
A character study of two armed guards who live and work in the basement of a luxury apartment complex whose residents dwindle by the day.
Invent a new title for this book:
Dr. Strangeguard or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace A Lonely, Isolated Existence as the World Slowly Ends
Read this if you like:
Waiting for Godot, Kafka, paranoia, isolation, corned beef.
Meet the book's lead(s):
Michel and Harry, guards employed by "The Organization." Michel is your narrator, a rather dimwitted fellow, as you might expect from a security guard whose only mission in life is to take orders. Harry is his partner, and you'll love this cat if you're into paranoid conspiracy theorists.
Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:
You definitely need some great character actors for these roles, as The Guard exclusively studies Michel and Harry. In my head this a low-budget indie film, but fuck it — Brad Pitt as Michel and Ed Norton as Harry. It'd work. Trust me.
Setting: Would you want to live there?
A lonely luxury apartment building with armed guards in the near future? The introvert in me says sure.
What was your favorite sentence?
It's actually a long passage, but here it is nonetheless:
You and me, Michel, we'll walk around this white villa side by side and guard his fiancée and her hairless pussycat. They're worth every penny, that's what Mr Van der Burg-Zethoven will think when he opens the curtains in the morning after a refreshing night's sleep and sees guards, armed to the teeth, patrolling his English garden. No one, he thinks, will try to lay a finger on my fiancée and her hairless pussy, I'll make sure of that. And us walking rounds, you and me, under a bright sky. Nothing escapes us, and when a cloud drifts in front of the sun we can look in through the big windows and see his fiancée stretched out on the sofa while she slowly strokes her completely hairless pussy. We're happy, Michel, to see her so relaxed. Her blind faith raises our spirits. After all, we work long hours. We never relax our concentration. We're always on edge. That's part of our profession. And the elite's medicine cabinets really have it all. Every morning there's Modafinil to keep us alert and get the best performance out of our brain cells. Creatine to bulk us up, because in extreme situations we have to be able to take out intruders with our bare hands. If we're exhausted but can't get any decent sleep because of the stress, we get Temazepam. And so it goes. Whatever you need. Paradise on earth.
Peter Terrin's words are sparse and his chapters shorts, but his pacing is only moderate, considering. I wanted this book—with chapters ranging from a paragraph to a page or two—to move much faster, but it didn't. Was it by design? Honestly, I don't know. I'd like to think it was, if only because Terrin provides a smorgasbord of ideas to chew on while you read this story about two guards seemingly guarding nothing from no one.
Protagonists Michel and Harry are alone, isolated, living in the basement of a luxury apartment building. Their only duty is to guard this building from—well, I'm not sure. One would surmise it's from hoodlums and hooligans and anyone else who might have an interest in entering this building of wealthy tenants. Regardless, they live for this duty, and they're rigid about it. They live for the structure and monotony and on-schedule delivery of rationed water and corned beef, which also happens to be the only contact they have with the world outside.
One weekend, however, all the tenants leave, one by one, except for a tenant on the 29th floor. He may or may not be up to something nefarious, or he could simply be content living by himself as the world slowly comes to an end (and it's pretty obvious the world around them has gone to shit, maybe due to a nuclear war of some sort). Neither Michel or Harry know for sure what's going on around them. And it doesn't matter, because they keep guard. Their delusions, paranoia and insecurities have them convinced they must stay on duty if they want to get promoted to an elite squadron of security officers by the mysterious organization that employs them. Their loneliness and isolation fuel this belief; what else are they there for if not to be eventually rewarded? These ideas and this mental and physical landscape lend the book a rather claustrophobic feeling for both its characters and readers. It's not overwhelming; it's quite comical, really, to see characters force themselves to believe such nonsense. But isn't that what we all do, on some level? Is that not the idea Terrin is trying to express here?
Above all else, however, The Guard is a test—of nerves, of patience and of character, for those that live inside its claustrophobic story and for readers trying to keep their wits about them while reading it. If you can keep pace, this is a nice little thought-provoker that will make you ponder just what the hell you're doing with your life—what are you waiting for, anyway?—and really, really make you crave some canned corned beef.
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