Book Review of The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The Tower of Glass (Dalkey Archive Press) is a collection of five inter-linking, quite complicated, stories set beneath the sweltering milieu of Sao Paulo, Brazil. It concerns itself, mostly, with the seedier, darker side of this ethereal city and follows the exploits of a group of disparate people as they try to make their own way in life – but as ever in a society that is as corrupted as this, it is never quite as straight forward as originally intended.
The Tower of Glass follows the street kids, the prostitutes, the pimps, petty thieves and the notorious death squads – who haunt the collection throughout.
The first of these intricate accounts, Conquest, contains some rather snappy, vulgar dialogue that grabs the reader by the collars and doesn’t stop shaking until it decides to put you down again. It is the sordid tale of sexual predator Sir Henry Spencer Ashbee as he prowls the streets for girls (sex tourism gone askew):
“His eyes are serpents’ tongues licking their arms, their cleavage, he is poison. His hands fondle posteriors from afar.” (Pg 8)
The writing is extremely pompous and insouciant, used to illustrate the type of characters we are dealing with. It is deathly humorous. The turn of phrase and overblown argot used being the key. Each character place dead-centre by Angelo himself: “There he goes…”, “Here he is…” etc. The reader is immediately placed within this action too; we feel right there with these despicable people, we can feel their breath on our necks. This all leads us to the interludes of dialogue which begin to act as comedic respite from the sleazy nature of each incident of action. We are dealing with individuals who have never grown up and probably never will – they’ve probably never had to.
Ashbee and his toadies treat each girl as a literal conquest to be gained in a competition of sorts, made up from exuberance and masculinity. Little to they know that their first encounter with a young prostitute is the first in a series of dark events that thread through the whole narrative like the stitches of a well-bound book.
This is a smorgasbord of style and content, as opposed to style over content. Angelo masterfully builds his inter-connected stories into a crescendo of meaning. The degradation, suffering and injustices of innocent individuals forced to live under a crummy regime of zero tolerance and corruption. It is a chilling start to a chilling book.
In Friday night/Saturday morning we begin to see a mix of very clever, and fundamentally absorbing, narrative techniques and hooks, all used by Angelo to fish the reader along, helping to bring to life and to convey his message of the systematic abuse of the poor (and especially the young/female poor) awash on the streets of Sao Paulo.
This physical, sexual, mental and socio-political oppression is omnipotent within each dark alley, within each seedy bar, back-room and street corner.
Friday night/Saturday morning, as with the rest of The Towers of Glass is a cacophony of voices, idioms and prose styling – it is an ostensibly well written story. The translation must have been quite an exhausting feat and it seems flawless.
Ellen Watson must be commended for this retelling – even the gaps, spaces, the blank pages between the action and dialogue are heard. It seems Watson has captured the argot and vernacular Angelo has wanted to record, conveying precisely the unbridled menace brewing just skin-deep within each exasperated character.
The Real True Son Of The Bitch is as alarming as it is funny. Throughout this gripping tale we begin to feel the police and thug brutality that saturates each page. And, again, we see a difference in stylistic approach.
We also begin sense just how Angelo infuses his decrepit tales with stark, almost scatological humour. For instance we are treated to a rather crude, yet hilarious, monologue from the character “Bete” a prostitute who links each of the tales, about the various sizes of her punters genitalia. This helps the reader to come to terms with the life she leads:
“…well, anyway, when I came out of the bathroom this guy had his clothes off already and – no exaggeration – limp it came half-way down his thigh, I’m not kidding! And I said: What the fuck, I’m getting out of here, and I started getting my things together…So I was getting my stuff together and the poor guy was just begging for it, really begging, he said he’d never screwed before, can you believe it? A man more than thirty years old!
And I felt sorry for him, how could you help it, ‘cause no woman ever had the nerve to go to bed with him. But you should have seen it when it got hard! Really, I’m telling you, it was like this, look, like from your elbow to your wrist, no, down to here, where your fingers start, yeah, like that. Me? Screw a thing like that? Like hell!” (Pg 72)
Dialogue as snappy, bawdy and real as this continues throughout, gathering pace and carrying the reader along, and even though the subjects dealt with are powerful and disturbing Angelo knows that he has an audience and he wants to entertain us along the way.
The eponymous The Tower of Glass is Angelo’s standout masterstroke, it is the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made entirely from glass, leaving each inmate with no privacy, no respite from the daily grind and, ultimately, no escape from each other.
It is stark in its lucid brilliance and executed with narrative finesse. More than just a nod and a slight wink to the intrinsic philosophies of Franz Kafka it is a continuation of his age-old foundation that we are all prisoners of our own transparent conscious – we are fragile and brittle because of it. Inside the tower of glass each inmate can be scrutinized; from the passers by and curious spectators outside the transparent penal-complex, to the scientist who observes each and every move:
“What’s important here is this: it’s obvious that they [the inmates] don’t know how to act because they’re not sure what they’re dealing with. All they want is to understand. They know we have a motive and that’s a good sign, an excellent sign…I propose that we knock down the expropriated houses, raise to three hundred the number of glass cells, and construct a glass shelter for the prisoners’ relatives…It’s function will be to separate the relatives from the simple spectators, so that the inevitable emotion expressed by the relatives doesn’t upset the others, doesn’t get in the way of assimilation. Seen through glass, this emotion may even prove to be of help.” (Pg 134)
This is important when we view the collection as a whole, Angelo wants his reader to not only be part of his story emotionally, but to also separate ourselves from it – to observe it from afar, to be that spectator gawping into the grimy goldfish bowl.
To elucidate upon the inner machinations of the final story in this collection would destroy the crux Ivan Angelo has laboriously spent building up in the previous four accounts, but Lost & Found is a crucial link in the chain of these events – serving to tie up historically, as well as symbolically, the reasons why humans will tread on whatever lies beneath them to get what the want.
The Tower of Glass is vivid and solicitous in design. It is a wake-up call that forces the reader to readdress hidden values and ethics, it is inimitable in its command and implementation and an exciting book to read – Ivan Angelo takes immense pleasure in teasing the reader into submission. The bigger picture lies beneath each of these five, superbly-written, tales and like most things that are obvious to us it takes a long while to realise them.
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Publication Date: 01/07/2004
Number of pages: 195
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.