By Diane Awerbuck for The Sunday Times
Richard de Nooy (Jacana)
Funny, terrifying and full of rage, The Unsaid is a barbaric yawp from the all the cells of the world. JR Deo, the war correspondent who also narrated Richard de Nooy’s first two novels, is being held for forensic observation after his vicious attack on fellow journalists in a bar. Long familiar with the humiliations and catastrophes that are the result of “racism, religion and rabies”, Deo is faced with a new adversity: incarceration and political pressure.
De Nooy has lived in Holland for twenty-five years, a place “in the vanguard of alternative approaches to crime and punishment, looking beyond jail sentences”. He says The Unsaid examines psychopathy and rehabilitation. What is clear is that, more than anything else, the novel probes the notion of personal responsibility: “[W]e each have our bag of stones to carry.”
Plagued by horror and regret, Deo regards himself as a “magnet for misfortune”, and is convinced that anyone who gets too close courts calamity. But he also fights being overwhelmed by atrocity. Possessed by the people whose deaths he has witnessed in Palestine, Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka, he documents their exit narratives. This is tragedy in the truest sense, reminiscent of Kevin Carter, who took the award-winning photograph of a vulture waiting patiently next to a starving Sudanese toddler. Carter committed suicide three months after getting the Pulitzer for the photograph, but JR Deo is inclined more to the homicidal.
While he is under observation, Deo finds himself recording the confessions of his companions – all violent criminals: “The main difference between you, dear reader, and the men in here is that you got all the attention you ever needed … It’s a terrible addiction, the desire for attention.” As the dynamics of the institution become clearer, Deo is confronted with the casual treachery of the psychopathic inmates as well as his manipulative doctors. He is in more danger inside the institute than he has been at the frontline.
Like Deo, De Nooy’s concern has always been the narrative of The Little Man: the quirky, the alternative, the down-trodden – people at the mercy of systems more powerful than themselves. At his best De Nooy is a joy to read, exhibiting a stark clarity powered by raw image: “… always the scrawny dogs that don’t realise they can flee, ever true to their territory, bound to the human hand until death.”
His deft renditions are marred only by the odd intrusions of register (“lad”; “toff”) and the more annoying repetition of Deo’s observations in the psychiatrist’s reports – a common fault in novels that use reportage inserts.
Otherwise, The Unsaid is properly paced, seamlessly plotted, and finishes the way it should. There is no hope for the broken world, Deo insists, but De Nooy’s ending says otherwise.