Surreal yet persuasive

2009-10-21 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Dr Ragab’s Universal Language

Robert Twigger

Picador

THE framing narrative of this curious, surreal tale is told by a contemporary figure, living in London. You would have to call him a serious anorak: he is fixated on pillboxes, those curious concrete structures that still litter parts of the English landscape and were put there to repel an invasion by Adolf Hitler’s forces in World War 2. And when he can’t find a pillbox, an underground bunker or an air raid shelter will do.

He is commissioned by a vanity publisher to write the history of an industrial dynasty in Germany, and once he is told that there are old ­papers stored in a bunker, he’s hooked. The rest of the novel consists largely of a secret diary found in the bunker where, in the chaotic ­aftermath of the war, its writer Hertwig was imprisoned by a gang of deserters and thugs.

Things look pretty bleak for Hertwig, especially as his part­Jewish girlfriend is being held by the nasties above ground. But he has ­secret knowledge, gained in ­pre-war days in Cairo from the ­mysterious Dr Ragab, whose acolyte he was, and, if used successfully, this could make escape possible. I don’t want to give too much away here, but his method of escape is distinctly unusual, and the temptation to try it at home is considerable, although the men in white coats would ­probably not be far behind if you did.

Robert Twigger is something of an explorer as well as an author, and his descriptions of the desert and desert travel are superb. There are things in his novel that are truly weird, but I found myself bamboozled into a willing suspension of ­disbelief and, almost against my will, enjoying the ride.

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