Book review: The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, published 14 Feb 2013

SyllabusI’m a greedy reader. If I’m enjoying a novel, short story, or memoir I’ve a tendency to devour, but there are works that demand to be savoured, to be read slowly, carefully, given serious thought. They’re so rich that gobbling is rendered nigh on impossible. Ashley Stokes’s short story sequence The Syllabus of Errors is one such book.

David Rose’s splendid introduction prepares the reader for an erudite and considered collection and invites readers to draw comparisons with the work of Joseph Roth and Roberto Bolano. The settings of the stories range from pre-fascist Italy, Weimar Berlin and modern day London, and many feature characters with a keen interest in Hitler studies and the history of the interwar years. But that’s not the end of it.

Themes of persecution (real and imagined), obsession and as Stokes so eloquently puts it ‘Getting in a State’ thread through the narratives. The weight of history is ever present; the threat of violence lurks in the shadows. In I Remember Nothing a gifted, impressionable school boy endures a ‘heroic act of post-colonial resistance’ from another pupil and finds intellectual stimulation with a war criminal hiding out in suburban Surrey; in The First Suggestion of Night the bullying of a politician by Mussolini supporters in pre-fascist Rome is rather more sinister and organised.  Men obsess over women and careers on the skids in Post-Leading Man, Ultima Thule and Abyssinia, and missed chances in Island Gardens and Storming the Bastille. Characters from one story appear as extras in another, and one even claims authorship of an earlier story. Inventive, brilliant.

I’ll talk a little more about Abyssinia, not only because it’s my favourite story in the collection (though it’s a close call with I Remember Nothing and The First Suggestion of Night), but also because, for me, it encapsulates all that is to be admired in the twelve tales: well-structured, compelling narratives, insightful, pin-point accurate characterisation, compassion and oodles of wit. As in the best tragedies laugh-out-loud moments are juxtaposed with the shocking and moving, the poignancy all the more powerful for the humour that precedes it. In Abyssinia, we follow Mellis, an art historian and alcoholic facing dismissal from his post, as he leaves A&E and wanders through the city recalling a missed opportunity with a woman he met at an exhibition. His ‘insectoid fascist’ Human Resources Manager is now this woman’s beau. Mellis’s growing rancour at a world where mediocrity and stupidity are celebrated slides into realisation; he is haunted, by the ghost of what he once was and what he must become again: a visionary dreamer. ‘A ghost, if you’re lucky enough to have one, returns you to the glimpse of a frontier you saw ahead long ago, a Great Wall…’ The portrayal of a man on the edge is intricately and compassionately depicted. All the characters in The Syllabus of Errors are exiles in some way; from their hopes, dreams, younger, happier selves.

And just as the stories examine the tensions and concerns of our times, drawing parallels with those of history, characters look inwards at their personal histories, asking that perennial question: what if?

Perhaps the best way to sum up the sequence is to draw on Stokes’s own words. In I Remember Nothing history teacher Mr Priskin observes: ‘There is no truth. People in the past found their times as confusing as we do our own. There are only questions and versions. Just make sure you always choose the human version, OK?’ These stories are beautifully human versions of truth which raise some important questions. Thought-provoking and profound. Often a platitude, but not so with these stories. You’ll read them again and again. Divine.

Buy it here.