Professor Ina Habermann on THE ESCAPE ARTIST (an excerpt from her keynote lecture for the annual CLIC symposium at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel on 16 November, 2016)
The Escape Artist is a first person-narrative told from the perspective of a character called Brian Manrique, covering the period during the closure of the border from 1971 until the early 1980s. Manrique, coming from a humble background, wins a scholarship to go to Cambridge University to study French and Italian literature. Though his greatest dream has come true, the reticent and shy Manrique actually finds it extremely difficult to settle in Cambridge, battling intense feelings of homesickness for his safe and small home in Gibraltar. Crucially, The Escape Artist is the story of a friendship, as indicated in the opening sentence of the novel: “The first time I saw Henry Portas I was in the Philosophy section of Cambridge University library.” While Manrique and Henry Portas are entangled by the fact that they are fellow Gibraltarians, they are also each other’s alter-egos: Manrique the reticent, humble scholarship boy, Portas from a rich dynasty of entrepreneurs; good-looking, athletic, sexually confident, adventurous and imaginative, transgressive and easy-going, a naturally predatory character in open rebellion against his family. Manrique is drawn out by Portas and eats the crumbs that fall from his table with a mixture of devotion and resentment. The phase of intense friendship in Cambridge is followed by profound estrangement when both men are back in Gibraltar, with Portas, despite not taking his degree, successfully involved in his father’s business, and Manrique living with his mother in a council flat, languishing in an insignificant library job. After years of stasis and smouldering resentment, Manrique finally gets the opportunity to take revenge on Portas when the latter comes to him totally distraught, admitting that he ruined the whole family through risky financial gambles and that his whole life was a sham. He asks Manrique to visit Portas’ beloved, emotionally unstable sister in the family’s country house in Opayar in the Spanish hills, to deliver an explanatory letter, keep her company and phone Portas immediately to confirm that all is well. Manrique does go to Opayar, but betrays Portas by not delivering the letter and sleeping with the young woman. After a while the news comes through that Portas has hanged himself. Manrique absolves himself from guilt and prepares to slip back into his insignificant life.
The trajectory of this novel is remarkable since it starts out as a coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman, a Campus novel, only to take a sharp turn towards tragedy towards the end. In the last section, the story goes completely off the rails: the text acquires a dreamlike quality, shifting into magical realism with the Spanish setting. The weird scenario of the young, sexually starved woman waiting in an Edwardian country house in the Spanish hills recalls Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba with its emotionally charged atmosphere of claustrophobia and barely suppressed hysteria. In a sense, this is not quite a British novel despite the language and the echos of such intertexts as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Elements of the mainstream British novel take on a different complexion through the focus on a specifically Gibraltarian predicament. On his way to Opayar, Manrique himself toys with the idea of an allegorical application of his story. Could his relationship with Portas be like that between Gibraltar and Spain, or rather like that between Britain and Gibraltar? However, these thoughts remain inconclusive, as Manrique is left above all with a personal sense of betrayal.
It is more promising, I suggest, to abandon allegory as a rather blunt tool, and to look at the novel’s more subtle exploration of space and identity. This includes setting, on the one hand, and the characters’ movements and spatial practices on the other. Strikingly, all actions and human encounters are strongly determined by setting: Though both Manrique and Portas hail from Gibraltar, they come together in Cambridge, a traditional English seat of learning that holds out the promise of fulfilment through education. Though class is always an issue, it can be temporarily shelved in this environment. True to his name of ‘Portas’, Henry opens doors for Brian Manrique – doors of perception, doors to intellectual and aesthetic experiences, doors to women, as the two young men grope their way, by trial and error, to a mutually fulfilling friendship. This is no longer possible back in Gibraltar, where they are both determined and imprisoned by the stultifying atmosphere of a city stewing in its own juice due to the closed border. In this environment, both Brian and Henry, diametrically opposed to each other in terms of background, looks, wealth and temperament, end up in the same place, with their faces towards the wall. While Cambridge spells liberation and Gibraltar means stasis, the move into Spain is positively disastrous. This last door that Portas opens for Brian provides access to his sister and to his own soul. Sending Brian on a preposterous triangular journey, by ferry to Tunis and thence to Algeciras in Spain and by taxi to Opayar, situated only a few miles from Gibraltar, appears like a great scheme, a final gamble, betting on, and hoping for, Manrique’s complete integrity. But Manrique is intent on playing out a Spanish revenge tragedy, and as he concludes his account with the words “If you ask me, I’d say the circle was now complete”, there is no hope of redemption, or even of recognition, which might serve as a prelude to change. Going back from Opayar to Gibraltar, he completes the vicious circle that circumscribes his Gibraltarian prison house.