Many moons ago, when I was a 17 year old Theatre Studies A-level student, my class read Samuel Beckett's Endgame. In case you've never come across it, it's a bleak tale with a cast of four - an older man, who is unable to stand, a younger man, his servant, who can't sit and spends a lot of time moving ladders around, and an elderly couple without legs, who live, like Bill and Ben, in a pair of dustbins, but without the consolation of Little Weed. The four appear to be set adrift from the rest of humanity, in a bare set with just 2 windows that are too high for anyone except the ladder-wielder to see through. As the play progresses life doesn't get any better, and it's a very grim read (for some helpful notes on Endgame, see SparkNotes).

It's one bizarre play. What I found even more confusing is the implication that it's a comedy. As one of the characters says "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness....it's the funniest thing in the world". In the end we laughed because the play was so bleak that you couldn't really do anything else, unless you wanted to be in floods of tears the whole time. Reading Peter Terrin's The Guard reminded me of this. It's, without a doubt, one of the most unpleasant books I've ever read."Darkly funny....", ",,,,often horrifically funny and always unsettling" trumpeted the reviews. If it was funny, it left me decidedly unmoved.

Is it well-written? Yes, undoubtedly. Unsettling? Most definitely. But it's a nasty, sadistic, misogynistic, even racist, barren tale.

Melbourne University car park.
Photographed by Amanda Tiong.
Harry and Michel are two security guards tasked with guarding an apartment block. Situated in the car-park basement of the block, they guard the sole entrance to the building. It's not clear exactly what's happened outside, but there has been (or at least they believe) some breakdown in society. The two men survive on small amounts of food, and never go outside. Most of the residents leave; and Harry and Michel believe that there is now just one resident remaining, the original resident of the apartment block. They wait for another guard to arrive, to relieve them, when they hope to move to a new "elite" guards' job in the countryside. In order to facilitate this, Harry gradually imposes more restrictions on their lives until they end up living in complete darkness. This dark period is ended when the new guard - a black man arrives. As paranoia grows within the two resident guards, the innocent incomer is tortured and killed. Finally the guards set out on a journey to find the last remaining resident....

Yes, Peter Terrin writes very well - the gradual build up of paranoia bursting into violence was well done. As is the growing dissolve between reality and madness. More than unsettling, it's a disorientating read. However it's such a horrid read - brutal, cruel, terrifying and profoundly worrying.

Why did I keep reading? I like dystopian novels, I enjoyed the power of Terrin's writing. I kept hoping that there would be some explanation, some resolution, some hint of goodness; but the relentless gloom of this novel, its sheer nastiness, makes the most dystopian of reads seem like The Magic Faraway Tree. I have no idea if The guard was meant to be an allegory (there seems to be a belief among some critics that it was an allegory of the Iraq war), quite frankly by the end, I didn't really care. It's a short novel, an easy read, but its 242 pages felt a lot, lot longer.

Perhaps, after all, I like my dystopia with a touch of redeeming humanity. There's none of that to be found here.


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