Monday 26 April 2010

Book Review: Dimiter by William Peter Blatty

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"Albania in the 1970s. A prisoner suspected of being an enemy agent is held by state security. An unsettling presence, though subjected to unimaginable torture he maintains an eerie silence. He escapes - and on the way to freedom, completes a mysterious mission. The prisoner is Dimiter, the American agent from Hell.

The scene shifts to Jerusalem, focusing on Hadassah Hospital and a cast of engaging, colorful characters: the brooding Christian Arab police detective, Peter Meral; Dr. Moses Mayo, a troubled but humorous neurologist; Samia, an attractive, sharp-tongued nurse; and assorted American and Israeli functionaries and hospital staff. All become enmeshed in a series of baffling, inexplicable deaths, until events explode in a surprising climax."

This is not The Exorcist.

This is a novel exponentially more accomplished than that infamous, some-might-say overblown fiction; its finely-honed narrative is concerned with the little things above all else, personal revelations grounded in relentlessly authentic reality. Heartfelt, authoritative and surprising, Dimiter is William Peter Blatty's most impressive and reverent novel to date.

And it's been a long time coming. The idiosyncratic author's first full-length fiction since Legion in 1983 - and with roots reaching further back than even then - Blatty asserts of Dimiter in a postscript that it is "the most personally important novel of my career," and the intimacy of his determined investment in the enigma at the heart of this slim volume rings true. He comes at the so-called mystery of goodness from any number of angles, by implication and insinuation via an array of perspectives - an Albanian officer tasked with the interrogation of an agent apparently of Hell, and in Jerusalem a doctor and a detective amongst myriad others - so that when the curtain is finally pulled back, the startling sight that awaits is no simple thing to parse.

The action, such as it is, occurs in the mid-1970s. A feta cheese seller is taken prisoner by the atheist Albanian authorities on account of an old blind man's vague misgivings, and tortured. Having spoken not a word to his captors, he escapes, leaving a trail of dead men in his wake, among them the torturer's sadistic son. The next year, in the holy city, murder is in the air - and mysticism. Two lunatics calling themselves Christ clash in an asylum; a clown seemingly cures a terminally ill young boy; the broken body of a Yemeni criminal falls from a Russian church tower. Somehow, Mayo and Meral, friends and colleagues of a sort, must decode this strange sequence of events before it swells to engulf Jerusalem in even greater tragedy.

It can take a while for readers to grasp the narrative imperative of some novels, but the deliberate patience of Dimiter trounces even the most measured of those. Blatty only shows his hand in the last fifty pages, as the large cast at last come together, in life and in death, to uncover the formless, hitherto unknowable intrigue that has haunted the somber narrative from the offing. In the interim, Blatty offsets the tension with a range of quirky characters that are intermittently perplexing and hilariously irreverent: a plaque that concludes "so eat the soup and leave the noodles" will stay with me for a long while yet. Dimiter is a triumph not for its mystery, though it has that in spades, but for the brilliantly individual people which populate its pages.

Dimiter has its faults. Dreams are rather overwrought with such predictable symbolism as to take the edge off the unspeakable, ethereal goings-on elsewhere, and latterly, Blatty takes to rounding off chapters with melodramatic one-liners and penny dreadful revelations that would do Dickens himself proud. These minor misgivings aside, Dimiter is a superb novel: compulsive reading that never approaches the repulsiveness of The Exorcist. It might have taken him twenty-odd years, but Blatty has outdone himself. Dimiter is diffuse and atmospheric, suspenseful and hugely satisfying.

by William Peter Blatty
March 2010, Forge

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