Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest, the first of a planned trilogy, is a quite extraordinary combination of a controlled Oulipian literary construct, page-turning detective thriller, and politically-charged social history.
The story begins in the present day with the discovery of a violent death in the London theatreland, one where Detective Rex King (the doubly royal name chosen by the author quite deliberate) finds his best friend as at first the assumed victim, then the chief suspect. The first ten chapters follow the investigations of King and his colleagues alongside the potential reopening of an old death-in-custody case at their Holborn police station, of a man arrested “for throwing an egg at some minor-league banker during the Occupy protests,” and the imminent threat of an inspection of their procedures and record keeping.
The second part, again ten chapters, takes us, at first rather jarringly, to a seemingly very different story, set in the mid 1980s in a hippy commune in a fictitious village in the stunning area around St. Paul de Vence, near Nice. The fictitious village is called La Fontaine en Forêt (The Fountain in the Forest; for a Booktrail, see here).
The third and final section of ten chapters brings the two stories together and solves the mystery . . . or, with a trilogy planned, does it?
Starting with the Oulipan, as that is what attracted me to the novel, White has constrained himself by the use of “mandated vocabulary.” Specifically, and in White’s own Authors Notes:
The Fountain in the Forest and the two novels that follow are mapped against a specific period in UK history: a brief interregnum of ninety days (or nine revolutionary weeks, according to Sylvain Maréchal’s decimal calendar) from the end of the UK Miners’ Strike on 3 March 1985 to the Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June. Each chapter is mapped against one day in 1985, converted into the French Revolutionary Calendar, but as well as being shot through with the daily symbols from the Revolutionary Calendar, The Fountain in the Forest also uses a mandated vocabulary, i.e. a predetermined list of words that must be incorporated into the text — namely, all of the solutions to the Guardian Quick Crossword from each of those same days in 1985.
Now I should acknowledge this is in an afterword. Sometimes with Oulipan novels (see my review of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx) it is ideal to start the book unaware of the constraint. Indeed, famously if perhaps apocryphally, some early reviews of the classic Oulipan work, Perec’s La disparition (translated into English as A Void), failed to notice that it was written without the letter “e,” despite the clues, such as the main character called Vowl. Here, however, all of the publicity surrounding the book, such as the author’s own crossword used to promote it (see here), rather suggests one is expected to know in advance; indeed, the mandated words are highlighted in bold in the text when they occur.
As an example, the novel opens:
Like any British policeman who had been brought up on the true-crime stories of the early twentieth century, Detective Sergeant Rex King recognised the jagged, hairy leaves and the sickly-looking yellowish and purple-veined five-pointed flowers immediately. It was henbane — Hyoscyamus niger — source of the deadly alkaloid scopolamine. This was the poison that, in 1910, the notorious ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen had used to kill Cora Turner.
Henbane is one of the answers to the Guardian Quick Crossword No. 4649, from Monday, March 4, 1985, the others are the following, in order of their appearance in the novel’s text: cabinet, Emma, least, cavil, prosaic, indispensable, Gallup, reason, Tuesday, night-watchman, Banda, icicles, vinegar, spice, Mark Twain, Iliad, my type, aspect, wallpaper, thrill, ebb-tide, tea-shop, geyser, Eric, and enemy.
White (and the reader) has a lot of fun with his concept. He is no believer in the Chekhov’s gun theory of drama, instead preferring red herrings: the henblane that begins the murder mystery is never mentioned again, a mysterious figure in plus-fours and riding a penny-farthing similarly escapes further mention (unless, of course, these are clues for parts II and III).
Other times the words, which as White has observed create a “time capsule” of the mid-80s, provide an excuse for exposition, for example, on President Hastings Banda of Malawi; others allow White to give Detective King a colorful vocabulary of his own invention, e.g., “It stood out like a platypus in a porn film.”
The bolding of the words could perhaps be seen to spoil the fun of finding them, encouraging the opposite technique: reading the list of mandated words, included in the Author’s Note, in advance of reading each chapter and anticipating what story might follow. As White himself observed in an interview in The Big Issue, “when words like ‘expectant,’ ‘touch,’ ‘erect’ and ‘flagrante delicto’ have to be used in a particular chapter, you know that love is in the air!”
However, the second Oulipian feature adequately fulfills any desire the reader has for detective work of their own, as well as hinting towards the socio-political nature of the novel.
As mentioned in White’s introduction above, his novel also draws on Sylvain Marechal’s French Revolutionary Calendar, used by the French government from late 1793 to 1805, and for 18 days by the Paris Commune in 1871, and by certain counter-cultural movements ever since. White directs the reader to Sanja Perovic’s The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics for further details. Perovic says there that:
the story of the Republican calendar contains — in almost conceptually distilled form — the history of our own modern time schema, restoring to life the assumptions, hopes and blind spots about the human construction of value and meaning that remain with us today.
The community in La Fontaine en Forêt also adopt the calendar, and in particular it’s way that each day of the year reflects a particular aspect of rural life.
No one else had the almanac, but even if they had, no-one really understood the particular method Pythag used to calculate this. They just took his word for it, enjoying the seasonal tone and flavour of the plants and herbs, the agricultural tools and foodstuffs that were thus named. They enjoyed the way that these names harked back to a simpler, pre-industrial way of life, as well as the basically irreligious and non-hierarchical structure that this implied, in contrast to the regular calendar with its saints’ days and Sabbaths, high days and holidays.
Each of the chapters is named after one such day, and the book then contains another piece of unrevealed mandated vocabulary, namely to include this within the chapter, though this left for the reader to find. Some are used for characters’ names and others inserted similarly to the crossword answers; so, for example, the stream of thought containing the “platypus in a porn film” analogy also has, a few lines later, “as powerless as Popeye without his spinach,” both in the Chapter Epinard / Spinach.
However in other places, and adding to the fun in finding them, White permits himself more flexibility and creativity than he allowed with the crossword answers, so that, for example, periwinkle becomes a reference to an iconic brand of mod clothing worn by the lead character.
As for the political aspects of the novel, well, suffice it to say that alongside the sandwiching events of the end of the miner’s strike, where confrontations between striking miners and police became increasingly hostile, and the Battle of the Beanfield, when police violently broke up a convoy of travelers attempting to reach Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice and also carried out the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War, the novel also takes in John Stalker’s shoot-to-kill enquiry, the Newbury bypass protests of 1996, Swampy et al, the sinking of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior by French secret services, counter-terrorism operations against ETA, and the general topics of both of deaths in custody and police infiltration of civil protests groups (including groups campaigning for justice in relation to the aforementioned deaths). An eloquent and detailed review in 3:AM magazine (here) provides much more context.
As a detective novel, I’m less well qualified to judge as it isn’t my favorite genre, but it certainly, irrespective of the political and literary aspects, was an enjoyable read, with plenty of clues but also red herrings and twists, and although seemingly wrapped-up in this volume, in reality with plenty of intriguing loose ends left for the next part of the trilogy.
And overall — well if this doesn’t make the Goldsmiths Prize list, then I will have a few cross-words with the judges.