'London Bridge' continues the misadventures of Ferdinard, anti-hero of 'Guignol's Band' and altar-ego of Celine. Exiled in the London underworld during the Great War, having served at the front and been decorated for bravery, a shellshocked Ferdinand, shrapnel in his brain, prone to fits and blackouts and a gammy left arm, on the run after the violent death of an associate, has hooked up with Sosthene de Rodiencourt, an aging Orientalist mystic. To finance a trip to Tibet, both have offered their services to a wealthy baronet, Colonel O'Collogham, who is testing military gas-masks in the hope of landing a lucrative contract. While Sosthene and O'Collogham test the masks, rattling the large house with bombs and chemicals, Ferdinand attempts to resist the lure of his host's angelic, underage, skimpily-dressed ward, Virginia, whom the Colonel humiliates by whipping in front of the servants. Terrorised by paranoia (that both the police and his old cronies are after him), a trip into the city for supplies sees Ferdinand confronted with unwelcome shades from the past.
The exhausting, febrile, exclamatory style of 'Bridge' takes its cue from its two protagonists, the mentally disoriented Ferdinand and the rythmically possessed Sostehme, with his epileptic Eastern dances. Comprising a handful of extended set-pieces, Celine doesn't so much describe the action so much as circle around it like a deranged vulture, skirting it with an excess of repetition, obscenity and slang. Ferdinand's 'reportage', coloured by paranoia, hallucination, spasms, fantasy, desire, dream, rage, confession, frustration, guilt, fear and shellshock is further disoriented by the skittish rhythms of his partner, whose possessed, frenzied dances imitate cod-Oriental texts. Many of the teeming set-pieces reveolve around literal dances - the acrobatic choreography of a ghost in a pulsing nightclub; the attempts by Sosthene to stop traffic in Picadilly with a ritualistic dance - and the style mimics their wild, jerking, swaying movements. The novel's coup-de-grace is an astonishing 100 page parody of Proust's 'Time Regained', using the same subject matter - Zeppelin air-raids, a phantasmagoric social occasion in which the hero meets figures from his past; the disorienting mix of aristocracy and criminality - but grinding it through a snarling demotic, brutal lowlife energy and slapstick violence, culminating in the arrival of a four months-long decomposing corpse.
This misanthropic catalogue of degraded and violent, if vibrant, human interaction finds room for some of the most vivid, hyperbolic and poetic descriptions of (a re-imagined) London in literature, with its labyrinthine back-streets, infernal hideouts and hangouts, and the teeming, larger-than-life activity of its ports, just as England's imperial glory is coming to an end.
The compulsive present-tense immediacy of the narrative is occasionally broken off by reminders of the narrator's vantage-point in the hell of World War 2, with the full knowledge of civilisation's embrace of the abyss. This twisted nostalgia, complete with incredulous winkings with the reader, mixed with Shakespeare, fairy tale and the Arabian Nights, illuminates the violence and grime with a genuine enchantment.
The full flavour of Celine's complex, neologistic verbal onslaught can never be caught in English, but translator Dominic di Bernardi comes closest yet, capturing rhythm, pace and the sheer overabundance or words, and is a vast improvement on the existing version of 'Guignol's Band' (any chance of having a go at that now, Mr. di Bernardi?)