The Mystery of the Sardine

The Mystery of the Sardine by Stefan Themerson. Dalkey Archive, 2006. 194p., $12.95.

There are few novelists equal to the likes of Raymond Queneau. HIs ability to combine the quotidian, the fantastical, the absurd, the humorous, the philosophical, and a healthy does of linguistic play makes his work sui generis. But, if I were asked to name one novelist who might be spoken of in the same sentence, it would be Stefan Themerson. Themerson, a Polish emigré to England, is a recent discovery of mine thanks to the fine folks at Dalkey Archive, who have brought out three of his novels in as many years.

Themerson’s novels have a similar free-wheeling nature to Queneau’s works. Characters of the most disparate or often absurd kind (12 year old math geniuses, palm readers, professors, exploding poodles, philosophy professors, former sailor shopowners, and the “Minister of Imponderabilia”) proliferate in a plot that starts in chaos and moves towards order, but ends up in chaos again just as one starts to get a handle on the goings-on. Enjoyable, smart, and witty, the writing pulls one through the early confusion of stories until one is completely engrossed in untangling the mysteries (for all three novels I have read of Themerson’s are, at some level, mysteries, though never of the purely crime/detection varietal).

A clear theme to this novel eludes me on one reading. The ending comes as not only a surprise but a strong push to go back and start reading again (which I will have to do at some point soon). Even without a clear understanding of what it all amounts to, I feel no qualms about the wonderful ride that is the process of reading this novel. Themerson is a man of ideas, grand and banal, and he pulls out no stops in stuffing his book with them, as reflections on the action or the words and thoughts of the characters.

What is this particular novel about? Any summary sounds both confusing and inadequate. It begins with a well regarded writer, moves onto his wife and his secretary, then to a philosophy professor and an exploding poodle, then various characters in Majorca including a 12 year old mathematician and his palm reading mother, and well… more. The disparate cast of characters (handily listed at the front of the book) are slowly connected to each other until one could make a map of their relations which might offer some key to the novel (or not). Or perhaps the proliferation of characters and ideas and their connections is a reflection on the breadth of life itself and the connections between people, tenuous or strong.

Sometimes the most interesting works are the hardest to write about. I don’t feel that I can really say anything worthwhile about this novel except to recommend it.

Further reading: A long and interesting essay on Themerson from Context No. 16.