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Book review of "The Combinations" by Louis Armand for the "2016 Not The Booker Prize"
by Phil Shoenfelt

The Combinations is Louis Armand’s eighth novel to date, and undoubtedly his masterpiece. Clocking in at more than 900 pages (including coda), the book is hardly an “easy read” – not something you’d pick up in the airport bookshop to while away the hours. This is literature with a big “L”, replete with arcane references, historical riffing, myth and legend that would require a doctorate in the humanities to fully access. And yet for all this, it is eminently readable, a page-turner, no less. At its heart, The Combinations is a good old-fashioned detective novel – albeit one that has more in common with Eco’s The Name of the Rose than anything by James Ellroy. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses might also be useful markers, but only inasmuch as Armand’s narrative ambition and breadth of vision – not to mention his erudition – are of a similar stature to those of Pynchon and Joyce. The central character Němec is reminiscent of a post-communist Malone or Molloy, but he also shares a fractured sense of time and space with the anti-hero Blake, from Armand’s 2012 novel Breakfast at Midnight. As we follow Němec’s day-to-day peregrinations around “Golem City” (a vision of Prague as a psychogeographical chess board), we encounter a cornucopia of historical and mythological characters, from Faust and Edward Kelly, to Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus, with Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Slánský in walk-on roles. The ostensible grail at the end of Němec’s quest – if indeed there is an end – is the mysterious Voynich Manuscript: a work of Renaissance philology “Composed by an Unknown Author, in an Unknown Language, (which) had, over the course of its moderately long history, attracted the various attentions of occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists & crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe…” This description should at least give you an idea of the novel’s trajectory, its gallows humour, it’s fascination with the flora and fauna of occult history and literary in-jokes. Two central mysteries remain: how Armand has managed to structure so much learning into something so readable; and why he remains “under the radar” to mainstream literary critics and the reading public in general.

Phil Shoenfelt, August 2016





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