Imagine for a moment if Gabriel García Márquez and Wes Anderson had gotten together one day over drinks in a dark, smoky bar and began to plot out a book. Now imagine that the magical realism García Márquez was known for, happened in an unknown Middle European city instead of somewhere in Latin America. C.D. Rose’s new novel Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else, could well be that imagined Anderson-García Márquez literary lovechild.
Rose, a Manchester-born writer, wrote in 2014 The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, a detailed study of literature’s less accomplished writers. The title may seem a bit demeaning, but in truth Rose attempts to bring authors who have lived in literary obscurity to light, giving them their own brief moment in the spotlight.
His debut fiction novel perhaps tries to do the same by way of an unnamed main character, a writer not well-known, who tenaciously seeks the grave of his favorite author when given an opportunity to give a lecture at an unnamed university in a non-English speaking country in Europe where the writer is said to be buried. But when he arrives, there is no trace of the professor who invited him, much less of his favorite writer’s grave.
If you think this is complicated and a bit absurd, well, it is. The meaning isn’t lost that this guest writer’s lecture is on the topic of forgotten books, since everyone appears not to know or remember much of anything. Names are surely not a great priority, since the main character lacks one, as do many of the other characters.
But then again some are given names. Like Jan, the taxi driver who shouts at random moments, takes the writer from one place to another with a box of old musty books hidden in his trunk. An odious literary critic has a name, as does one of the writer’s friends. However, the person who shows the writer around the university is simply The Profesora, and her assistant…well, yes, The Assistant. Later, as the writer’s relationship with her turns friendlier, the Assistant becomes Ana.
Although she could also be her twin brother Oto. It’s inconclusive.
If this is already looking too complicated to keep pace with, we haven’t yet gotten to the friend who appears out of nowhere, the vanished professor who is always just out of reach and a grave that maybe isn’t a real grave. Whatever haze this novel may leave you in, the dialogues are worth the aftermath of confusion. They have exactly the quirky, slightly unhinged tone of a Wes Anderson movie script, proved by a bizarre conversation between the writer and the Profesora about the missing professor:
“We were lovers once”, she said.
“You and the”…?
“Professor, yes. But no longer”.
“I am not. My husband didn’t approve.”
“I suppose not.”
The relationship between these two characters is much like the above conversation: uncomfortable, curt and bit nonsensical. All the characters in the novel share the same trait, but perhaps it is the Profesora who is the most enigmatic.
In between chapters, Rose includes the writer’s lectures to an slowly diminishing audience. Although this intrusion does slow down the narrative to an almost unbearably slow pace, it’s worth it to pay attention. There are clues in the lectures which will be useful later and they add a bit of food for thought.
You will, I hope, pardon the cliché.
As the writer chases the location of the dead writer’s grave whose work no one really seems to remember and the unknown whereabouts of the professor, things began to go slightly awry even as these two mysteries start to unravel.
Rose’s resolution of the novel is strange at best, but it keeps the tone of the plot as the writer discovers what it means to be truly unknown and the pleasure of finding what we seek when we least expect it.