Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark
'I'm afraid there are,' said Curran.
Robert Leaver is on a trip to Venice with his friend and, it is presumed, lover, the wealthy art dealer Curran, when he runs into his own father, who has skipped to Venice from their native England with his mistress. Robert, disgusted, disappears, leaving behind both Curran and his girlfriend, the Bulgarian emigre Lina Pancev. Soon, a series of incriminating letters find their way to Curran and others threatening to reveal Curran's involvement in the death of Lina's father, who--for reasons that are never clear--was cut in half and buried in the garden of the hotel Pensione Sofia decades ago. Meanwhile, Robert's mother contracts a private investigation firm in England to find out what her husband and son are up to, but mostly sits at home reading trashy novels.
The cloak-and-dagger stuff is very much part of Spark's oeuvre, but here it is mostly toothless. The death of Pancev is a red herring, a plot contrivance to keep Curran on edge and give the mysteriously omniscient Robert the air of a puppet-master, working from behind the curtain. It does result in one memorable scene when Robert's letters persuade Lina, not knowing her father is buried beneath, to dance on the twin rose gardens of the back garden of the Pension Sofia. But otherwise Robert's hijinks remain hijinks, scare tactics for the sake of scaring. No money is moved; the only revelations occur to the reader, and they are slight ones at that. In many ways Territorial Rights is a parody of a dime-store thriller novel, the kind old Mrs. Leaver reads because she is necessarily absent from the adventures of her husband and son.
Ultimately, this was one of the least compelling of Spark's novels. The cast is too large, bogged down by characters both indistinct and unamusing. Like her other works, the disparate parts barely seem to hang together, despite the novel's brevity, but unlike them, I don't really care to think about the ways they might be made to cohere thematically. Venice as a setting is never vividly described or purposefully employed except as a blank space occupied by the moneyed classes, and might just have well been Ibiza or Stockholm or some other place. Territorial Rights produces a few good moments--one is when Lina, having discovered that she has slept with a Jew, jumps despairingly into the canal--but that's about it.