The Flying Man opens in 2012, in France; our hero is preparing to die, looking back on his life.
He’s in Biarritz, but wouldn’t it sound better to say that he was in Paris?
And wouldn’t it sound better to say that he is marvelling at his life, rather than simply reflecting on it?
Say what you will. He won’t mind.
Because “there are just three of us in this story – the one who sits patiently and listens, the one doing the telling, and the one who is talked about – we’re all here, in this poorly stuffed chair, in this poorly filled suit. You and Me and He.”
“You” are then jolted backwards from 2012 to 1931, to his birth in Lahore, The Punjab.
And “you” already know that this man has built his life on distrust.
So your instinct is to flee, before this narrative takes hold.
“You” have heard this story before. “You” really don’t need to hear it again.
But something about him gets you reading the first segment and then the next.
And then “you” are hooked.Even though “you” know that “he” is not to be trusted.
But part of the appeal is the sense of transformation.
“I was once a journalist, a literary club director, an investment rainmaker, a prisoner, a counterfeiter, an internet entrepreneur. I was once a son, a husband, a father. And now I’m a Storyteller.”
But it is not the sense of wonder that keeps the reader returning to the tale.
Perhaps “you” return because you want to see whether his acts of betrayal are repaid in kind. Certainly they are not concealed. Perhaps at first, but not for long.
Even the descriptions of other characters are imbued with heightened emotion.
“Samira, all angles and sharpness, with nothing soft or sweet to her, like a crisp green apple, a wedge of acid lemon, a slap in the face.”
Yes, many acts of resistance are recounted. And there is something satisfying in charting their development.
(You’ll see in this brief glimpse that neither language nor style are fancy, but they suit the Storyteller, and they conspire to move the narrative at a steady pace.)
But mostly “you” return because the narrator has acknowledged that, however many times he may change his name and his line of “work”, there is an ordinary man beneath that persona.
“He had believed that he was glamorous and different, a bird of paradise that grew from a pot of grey garden dust, but the mirror no longer reveals a Parisian playboy, simply an ordinary, pleasant-looking man approaching his forties.”
And this man, looking back on his life, is reaching for a way to tell his story.
“He” has lived as many characters, but now he is looking for a narrative thread.
Gazing upon a woman with whom he has been involved, “he” sketches this possibility, first.
“She thinks that she had a narrow escape. She is grateful to him for leaving when he did, and not giving her children that he would run away from and not be bothered to see. She is grateful to him for leaving when he was still handsome.”
But, then, “he” looks from another perspective, as the woman walks away from him.
“Her shoulders are hunched, a little higher than they should be, and he wonders whether she cares more than she has let on; whether she is trying to control herself and keep herself from crying; he knows that it is unlikely, and he knows that it is unkind to think this, but he almost wishes she would. He would rather think he’d broken her heard, once upon a time, than failed to make any impression whatsoever.”
As the years pass, as other characters enter and exit the stage, “he” begins to feel more of an observer than a participant in his own life.
“Alone on the road, well dressed, more than middle aged, with neatly cut hair, he feels like one of those oddly respectable people who inhabit the borders of their own lives, like a travelling salesman, or an elderly butler serving someone else’s family in a stately manor, whose real life, hearth and home is happening somewhere else.”
Readers continue with the story that he tells because the gap between “he” and “me” is offered so guilelessly. It’s easy to sympathize with the sense of wanting to have been more.
But, wait, guilelessly? That can’t be.
This is a deliberate act. This man is a Storyteller, remember?
Continuing to read is acknowledging the power of the spell that “he” has cast upon “you”; Orange Prize nominee, Roopa Farooki, spins a tale in The Flying Man that is beguiling, not guileless.
ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 2 of 20
Roopa Farooki‘s The Flying Man
Originality Familiar tale, whose originality lies in the narrative voice
Readability Strangely compelling
Author’s voice Charismatic, direct, wheedling: delightfully untrustworthy
Narrative structure Bracketed by contemporary segments, chronological in-between (1931-2012)
Gaffes Some typos, but only occasional
Expectations Fairly high (nominated for New Writers’ 2007; longlisted in 2010)
Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (2004)
Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (1997)