One of the great things about independent publishing houses is that they release excellent books that have either been out of print or did not somehow get the attention that they deserved when they were originally published. Most of them are also champions of translated literature.
NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press are some of these indie presses that have consistently introduced strong books to readers and brought back authors into the limelight who otherwise had sunk into oblivion.
Frederic Dard’s Bird in a Cage comes from the stable of Pushkin Press, under its crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard is one of those prolific authors with no fewer than 284 books under his belt. Very popular during his times, especially in the post war years, strangely he has been completely forgotten since. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of this author until Pushkin Press decided to gradually release his titles. Bird in a Cage (ably translated by David Bellos) is the first of many to come.
The first few sentences just grab you.
How old does a man have to be not to feel like an orphan when he loses his mother?
When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity.
Albert’s mother died four years back and he has come on Christmas Eve to her small flat. Why has Albert waited to come four years after her death? Why not then? Where was he for six years?
These are the questions that come to mind when the novel opens but we will only get an inkling later on.
It is not until he is in her flat, that her death really hits Albert hard. Suddenly he feels claustrophobic and depressed. He decides to go out for a walk.
On the way he passes a shop selling Christmas decorations from where he purchases a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust. This purchase will gain much significance as the novel progresses.
Gripped by loneliness, Albert enters a big restaurant and settles down nicely to a warm meal. He looks around the room and at a table spots a young girl with a woman who he assumes is her mother.
The child was with a woman, presumably her mother. She had seen me turn towards them and was smiling at me, as all mothers smile when you look at their child. I had a shock.
The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed.
Who is Anna? Why does this woman remind Albert of Anna? We do not know yet. But it is enough to make Albert obsessed. So when mother-daughter leave the restaurant, Albert decides to follow them.
Albert is trying to throw us off guard though. But can we believe him?
Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.
They end up meeting in a theatre and after the movie, she invites him to her flat. Albert can’t resist the invitation.
All of this takes place in the first chapter itself. From thereon, Albert begins to feel that he is embroiled in a nightmare as a series of events take place in her flat that completely baffle him. Yet, he is so besotted with this woman, he can’t let go of her. This then is the brief outline of the plot.
For a novel of barely 120 pages, Bird in a Cage packs quite a punch. It is an unsettling, gripping tale and cleverly constructed. A sense of unease prevails throughout and there is a dream-like quality to the story.
Albert can’t make sense of what is happening initially. Is he hallucinating? Is he in a nightmare? What will happen later on, when he begins to get some sort of a grip on events?
Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do…