A few years ago, I became a Charles Lambert fan. First with Any Human Face –a novel I enjoyed so much that I sought out Little Monsters which was shamefully OOP and not that easy to find. So imagine my delight when the author released a Kindle single (read novella) called The Slave House. The story, although strictly fiction, obviously springs from some personal experience, and on his blog, Charles Lambert explains just what he was doing in Portugal in 1978, and why it was a difficult time for him. The time and place, along with a malignant sense of displacement and unease, are apparent in this tale of a young man who inadvertently steps into a deceptive, dangerous world he doesn’t understand. This story hit a chord for me–perhaps because as part of my mis-spent life, I was an ESL teacher for a time, and so I know from first-hand experience how some of the shoddier, third-rate schools operate. Perhaps part of the attraction can be explained by the fact that as an ex-pat, I’ve also experienced the dizzying results of displacement in a culture that you think you understand, but then discover one day, that rather shockingly you have no clue about the people you thought you knew.
Simon is a young British man, armed with a fresh degree in English, who lands in Portugal for a marginal teaching job. You know trouble is ahead when the customs officer begins pulling out Simon’s books from his suitcase and then crosschecks the titles against a blacklist. But Simon doesn’t rethink his decision about being in a country with obvious political problems, and while part of this is due to Simon’s youth and inexperience, it’s also partly due to Simon’s lack of career choices. There’s the sense that he has to do something with his life and move on after university.
Well, says his father, at least you’ve got a job after all this time spent lounging around on the sofa and looking at pornographic magazines. I was starting to wonder what your degree was good for.
The job in Portugal solves some problems: it gets him out of his parents’ home, takes him somewhere new, interesting and possibly exotic, and buys him time until he decides what the next step is. Later in the novella, we learn that the title, The Slave House, comes from the name given to a “transitory place,” and this lack of grounding and absence of permanence underscores both the story of a country in a state of flux and Simon’s alienation from his surroundings and his own decisions.
Joe Santos, the “brightly aggressive,” rather unsavoury director of the school where Simon is contracted to teach, was supposed to have arranged a flat for Simon, but this is yet another signal of what is to come. The flat isn’t ready, and by default, Simon falls to the care of another teacher, Elaine–a woman who places a proprietal claim on Simon.
She’s the kind of woman he normally does his best to avoid: humourless, intense. She’s lightly built with frail, curved shoulders that give her a closed-off, vulnerable air.
Simon, excited by the life that appears to have opened up for him, doesn’t realise that he has inadvertently stepped into a minefield of politics. He’s unaware that Portugal had a revolution in its recent past, and that tensions between the fascists and communists are still high. The politics aren’t just distant, impersonal state issues, however, for the politics at the school are also treacherous. But these are all things that Simon doesn’t really want to know about, and while he admires Elaine’s political ardour, he feels as though he’s a tourist passing through a country that is a strange, discordant blend of the half-finished glamorous dreams of an ejected fascist government and a depressed economy in which milk rarely appears for sale.
Simon is happy to sit beside her and listen, without reciprocating. He wrote once, on a wall, at university: The unexamined life is the only life worth living.
With that attitude of detachment burying demands for commitment–both political and personal, Simon misses some warning clues thrown his way. These clues are signposts, warnings about what he should and shouldn’t do in Portugal. What happened to Simon’s predecessor? Why exactly is Joe, a “jumped-up barman,” dining with prominent members of PIDE? What is Joe’s relationship with his job-hungry female teachers? Simon has landed in a nest of intrigue, a political and personal quagmire in which estrangement may act as a safety net but also takes him skirting dangerously close to betrayals on several levels.
While we don’t learn much at all about Simon’s day job (and there’s room here to expand this into a novel), or the shoddy school, we learn a great deal about Simon’s night life–the white noise of his drinking binges and sexual encounters. Simon’s blurry, unfocused detachment encompasses both politics and his personal relationships, but in this volatile situation it’s not clear where politics end and the personal begins. Not too surprisingly, Simon soon finds himself in too deep on several fronts. There are some great characters here, and my favourite is Sabrina, the sexually liberated, sexually generous “German tart” who’s Simon’s female counterpart and the antithesis of Elaine:
Sabrina has been chosen on the basis of the full-length photograph she sent with her CV. Joe likes blondes with substantial figures, Elaine tells Simon. Joe’s already talked about women to Simon more than once, telling him what he looks for in the fairer sex, as he calls them. He dips and rises round their imaginary forms, shaping their hips and shoulders with his leathery little hands, a cut-price Pygmalion, his lips thrust out. So Sabrina is no surprise. She has a pudding-basin cut of heavy dark blonde hair; she wears skin-tight blouses and pencil skirts and spike-heeled shoes that force her round high bottom into torturous circuits when she walks. The cobblestones of the narrow streets in the old centre are agony to her.
“How can I possibly move around this town under my own steam?” she asks Simon as the two of them walk down to the sea one afternoon soon after her arrival. “I shall have to ask Mr Santos to pick me up and carry me in his short but virile arms.”
One of the dangerous things about people who are tourists in their own lives is that they have no idea about their impact upon others or the footprints they leave behind. Perhaps this can be chalked up to youth or perhaps this is Simon’s approach to life. Anyway, a great little novella for remarkably little on both AmazonUK on both Amazon US. Author Charles Lambert illustrates how experience is not equal to engagement, and intensity and involvement do not equal maturity or integrity.