The Bat Tattoo

by Russell Hoban
ISBN: 0747560226

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Russell Hoban
by Eric Miller

Much of Russell Hoban's latest novel, The Bat Tattoo, consists of what scholars call ekphrasis-the description in words of works of art. The reader is treated to thoughtful interpretations of Caspar David Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, of Daumier's Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Paul Bril's Campo Vaccino with a Gypsy Woman Reading a Palm, and of an eighteenth-century Chinese bowl decorated with red bats, symbols of happiness. Elsewhere, plots of movies such as Crash and lyrics of songs such as "Is that all there is?" are likewise the subject of meditation, always with a view toward defining the sensibility of the character who ponders them. The Chinese bats offer the title for Hoban's novel; both of the middle-aged protagonists, Roswell Clark, 47, an artist, and Sarah Varley, 44, a dealer in antiques, independently choose the bat, a crepuscular emblem of felicity, as the template for the tattoo each wears on a shoulder. Grieving their deceased spouses, they pursue parallel and, eventually, confluent lives in London, England. A tattoo supplies an ideal image for the conjunction of life and art: it occupies both zones, existing on the vital integument that separates them. Clark and Varley's blind choice of the same motif for their tattoo shadows forth their fateful compatibility.
Hoban's book is partly a satire about the art world, holding up the exquisite work of the likes of Tilman Riemenschneider (a German sculptor born around 1540) against the contemporary taste for conceptual art, with its used tampons and its battered dustbins. One focus for satire is Adelbert Delarue, a wealthy, vivid, implausible character who writes an improbable translationese and who acts as a patron to Roswell Clark. Hoban's satire is amusing, but sentimentality undercuts it at times, especially in the character of Abraham Selby, an oracular member of "the low-budget drinking community." As a decadent aesthete, Adelbert Delarue does not convince on the same plane of plausibility as Roswell Clark and Sarah Varley; the philosophical alcoholic Abraham Selby persuades the reader not much more fully. Hoban is a magical writer, but as in the case of his fine post-nuclear-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker, local beauties of observation and expression compensate for larger weaknesses.
What kind of beauties will the reader encounter in this novel? When Hoban describes a person, he economically illuminates how everyone projects an atmosphere of his or her own. Here is what Roswell Clark thinks as he visits the artisan Dieter Scharf in his workshop: "there was Dieter wreathed in vile blue smoke with his invisible charcoal-burner's hut and a goblin-haunted forest in the shadows." Weather receives beautiful treatment: "It was a damp and foggy November morning with a chill in the air. The fog made everything more personal, as if it were taking me aside to tell me a secret." At times, the discourse about art adopts a tone, variously successful and unsuccessful, somewhat like W.G. Sebald's rambling erudition:

"The performances of Gislebertus had of course to be planned but they are like jazz improvisations in stone. I think he must have been an obsessive, and to such people the Romanesque style comes naturally: again and again they reiterate the folds in garments-you can almost hear the left hand doing the bass part while the right hand carves the tune!"

A character has "sudden blue eyes"; trees receive the following accolade: "fashions come and go but the trees still maintain their original identity, their unfashionable mystery." At one point, Roswell Clark is bidden by Adelbert Delarue to make a couple of miniature crash-test dummies capable of having sex; the suspense in Hoban's novel, a weaving of synchronicities, is generated by a different imperative, the rediscovery in middle age of how to make love.

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