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John Banville: Mefisto

This a strange book and not a particularly easy read, using a stylised language and being vague about who is who. The narrator is Gabriel Swan. Gabriel is a twin but his younger twin brother was still-born. He is a lonely child, interested only in maths. Indeed, one of the key themes of the book is his attempt, rarely successful, to impose an order on the world with figures. As one character tells him, numbers are imprecise, but he grimly holds on to the idea that he can turn the chaos around him into order with numbers.

The key theme of the book is given by the title. The Mephistophelean figure is Felix, a man about town. Gabriel first meets him when visiting Ashburn, where his mother used to live. Felix is living with Mr. Kasperli and the deaf mute, Sophie. What Felix does is not clear but Mr. Kasperli is a corpulent mine owner. Sophie’s role seems to be as Mr. Kasperli’s concubine. When Felix is around, things go wrong. In particular, there is a cave-in in Mr. Kasperli’s mine, with deaths and injuries and the locals understandably upset. At around the same time, Gabriel’s uncle, who is acting as a chauffeur for Mr. Kasperli, has a car crash and Gabriel’s mother is killed and his father injured. Felix then disappears.

The second part starts with Gabriel badly burned in a mysterious fire. After a lot of medical help, he more or less recovers and again meets Felix. This time, he is again with two mysterious characters, Professor Kosok and Adele. Kosok spends much of his time (at night) on a computer, though it is not entirely clear what he does. Inevitably, things go wrong. Gabriel is there to help him, fascinated by the logic of binary code but, again, it is not clear what, if any, his role is. Gabriel falls for Adele. Like many of the people Felix seems to meet, she is a drug addict, with Felix and, later, Gabriel as a supplier. The inevitable happens, leaving Gabriel alone but with the feeling that Felix is watching him.

The prose is, depending on your point of view, poetic or overdone, the story is unclear, the characters often mysterious shadows but the book does sort of hang together in its own way and we do get an interesting portrait of a man – Gabriel – who has started down the slippery slope without realising it and of the red-haired devil who is watching him.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 by Secker & Warburg