Monday, November 16, 2015

Francis Bacon in the Empire of Indulgence

Janice Law,Moon over Tangier

Francis Bacon has grown bored and lovelorn in London. No, not that Francis Bacon, the other one: the Anglo-Irish figurative painter whose tortured, distorted human forms revolutionized postwar British art. So he follows his paramour and sometime torturer David to colonial Morocco, a paradise of anonymous sex and late imperial exoticism. Once in Tangier, however, he finds a warren of crime, including a mysterious murder tied to local art forgery.

Though this is American novelist Janice Law’s third, and reputedly final, “Francis Bacon Mystery,” the book itself is functionally freestanding. It doesn’t require any particular familiarity with prior novels, or Francis Bacon, or art generally, to grasp Law’s narrative of cruel romance, venal empire, and postwar chicanery. Though marketed as a mystery, Law essentially crafts a tale of character and circumstance, which just coincidentally involves fraud and murder.

Bacon simply wants to drink copiously and romance as many Moroccan “beach boys” as limited time and money allow. When one prominently flamboyant party host’s newly purchased Picasso proves forged, however, the local constable blackmails Francis into joining the investigation. Seems they have a blank warrant for David’s arrest, which they’ll sign if he doesn’t comply. Thus Francis becomes an unwilling, but entirely too proficient, art counterfeiter.

Janice Law
When it appears everybody lies about this deeply conflicted case, nobody appears particularly surprised, except perhaps Francis himself. The police have political motivations that don’t involve aestheticism or intellectual property. The party host proves remarkably duplicitous when the spotlight shines elsewhere. When Francis finds himself stalked by a suspiciously James Bond-like agent of the British Legation, he realizes he’s stumbled into a case with truly international implications.

Tangier, in Law’s telling, has a familiar yet discordant ring. As a colonial capital, it catches every expatriate the European homeland doesn’t want to see. But unlike Bogart’s Casablanca, this African melting pot doesn’t catch diverse wartime refugees fleeing Naziism and generalized homeland oppression; Tangier caters specifically to sexual outcasts, the bon vivants and sybarites forced into exile from Continental homes where homosexuality remains wholly illegal.

David, the man who induced Bacon’s newfound expat status, is the consummate charming abuser. A masterful musician and storyteller when sober, a raconteur of wartime extravagance, his fondness for gin transforms him into a knife-wielding psychopath. Francis admits his fondness for “rough trade,” but also opens his narrative by fleeing into a hog barn overnight to avoid David’s homicidal wrath. The romance apparently flees rough trade pretty quickly.

One of Francis Bacon's iconic, and deeply
disturbing, Screaming Popes paintings
Yet Francis remains steadfastly willing to defend David, whose distant but amorous attentions combine mentor, lover, and big brother in equal, and equally terrifying, measures. The fact that neither Francis nor David remains particularly faithful reflects, not homosexuals’ innate moral corruption, but how pliable ethics become under circumstances of official oppression. As first-person narrator Francis explains, police often serve traumatic beat-downs to “beach boys” for sport.

Readers selecting this book for gripping mystery may find this book awkwardly slow-moving compared to contemporary thrillers. Law doesn’t expend energy on creating complex mental puzzles, and though she does well in concealing her culprit, she doesn’t particularly care about red herrings and other familiar tropes. For Law’s money, historic Tangier and its milieu of Crumbled Empire decadence holds more interest. This is mainly a historical novel and costume drama.

And what a historical novel. More literate critics than I have extolled Law’s scrupulous attention to detail. Where less meticulous authors have recently frustrated me for their willingness to compromise accuracy to create a better-selling paperback, Law creates a narrative for audiences who desire the more difficult journey. Like visiting a foreign land, one gets the feeling nothing here is sanitized for modern Anglo-American sentiments. Bacon’s Tangier is very dangerous.

This painstaking accuracy sometimes results in moments that make modern readers distinctly uncomfortable. Watching the revolutionary independence movement evolve from their rooftop divans, Bacon and David are sometimes prone to observations we’d call racist. And although I balk at modern complaints about “cultural appropriation,” Bacon’s tendency to regard Moroccan culture as a profligate shopping trip uncomfortably reduces African culture to a shopping mall. As imperial conquerors often do.

But these very uncomfortable moments contribute to the immediacy of Law’s narrative. As Bacon navigates Tangier’s difficult political byroads, we sympathize with him, while still realizing he’s a colonial asshole. We want him to win, but not too much. Where suit-clad Bogart represented a pre-war antihero model, Bacon epitomizes postwar moral collapse. His narrative is immersive, and perilous. And we emerge wondering: how much am I like these colonial taskmasters?

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