Sunday, 31 August 2014

Penguin no. 902: Serenade
by James M. Cain

Under Socialism, it seems that there's only one guy that really knows how it works, and if some other guy thinks he does, it's a counter-revolutionary act, or, in unsocialist lingo, treason. So back in 1927, a guy named Serrano thought he did, and they arrested him and his friends down in Cuernavaca, and started up to Mexico with them in a truck. But then up in Mexico somebody decided it would be a good idea if they never got there at all, and some of the boys started out in a fast car to meet them. They fastened their hands with baling wire, lined them up beside the road, and mowed them down with a machine gun. Then they said the revolution was over, and the American papers handed it to them they had a stable government at last, and that a strong man could turn the trick, just give him the chance. So wooden crosses mark the spot, an inspiring sight to see.

It is the pace of this novel which is beguiling: there is never a moment when you can begin to relax, secure in a conviction that everything is going to turn out fine, and yet it is also never clear exactly what it is that will go wrong. And for this reason I am reluctant to discuss much of Serenade's plot, as I suspect his is yet another novel best experienced without too much forewarning. The only thing I would note is that it may not be a novel for anyone who finds it necessary to approve of an author's beliefs or prejudices. One premise of this novel is that opera has become captured by an effete crowd; another is that homosexual tendencies are emasculating.

Serenade contains several references to the opera Carmen, which Wikipedia describes as 'the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery Gypsy, Carmen' after which 'José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen's love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo.' Carmen's plot seems to have a few parallels in Serenade, in that John Henry Sharp uses his own wiles to seduce the Mexican prostitute Juana Montes, having distracted her affections from the well-known bull-fighter Triesca.

But neither John Sharp nor Juana could ever be described as naïve. John Sharp tells his own story, and it is the story of a man who knows how to solve problems. When he is starving and without money, he works out a way to get food; when they are trapped by a sudden torrent, he finds a way to keep them dry; and when anyone even hints at featuring him in a show or a movie, it is invariably his idea which underpins the project's success. Yet for all his ingenuity, he is no match for Juana; she may be an impoverished Mexican/Indian prostitute, but it she who in time proves herself to be the wiser of the pair.

When we first meet the narrator he is a washed-up opera singer living in Mexico with only three pesos in his pocket, and even these have been spent by the end of the evening. And as you cannot help but concern yourself with how this man is going to survive in a foreign country, without work and without access to any funds, the story is tense from the beginning. And there is the ancillary problem of how he is to free himself from the entanglement with Juana, for it is she who is responsible for inadvertently using up those last three pesos, and she must surely have an expectation that more pesos will follow those three. When John Sharp realises she is a prostitute, he has nothing left to offer her for her time.

And what John Sharp, left without funds or prospects, seems mostly to feel is bitterness. It comes out in a series of tirades against Mexico and against the Mexicans, so that there seems nothing they can do which satisfies him; he finds fault with their musicality, their sense of rhythm, and their intelligence. People contradict him, and events contradict him, but he will never concede that anyone has a justifiable point, and he never changes his mind. And all the time Juana serves as a counter-example to his many prejudices, but he copes with this by assigning her to her own special category and refusing to view her as representative of her country.

John Sharp's story is about fulfilling the American Dream, but it doesn't seem to be enough. He never manages to free himself from his desire to be with Juana, and this turns out to be a problem for the pair of them.

First published 1937. Published in Penguin Books 1953. This edition 1955.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 874: The Postman Always Rings Twice

1 comment:

  1. I read this a long time ago, and found it surprising. I keep meaning to re-read it, because on first reading I knew absolutely nothing about opera, and now I am a massive opera fan, so I think it might mean more to me now....



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