Dan Rhodes' Little Hands Clapping
Dan Rhodes' fiction has in common a predilection for the odd, grotesque and macabre, and he is at his most grisly in 2010's Little Hands Clapping. In the opening chapter we are introduced to a grey old man who sometimes wakes up in the night to find a spider making its way towards his mouth. The old man chews and swallows the spider, then contentedly goes back to sleep. Although Rhodes continues to refer to him simply as 'the old man', we learn that his name is Herr Schmidt, and that he is the resident curator of a museum of suicide in a town in Germany. This is not a museum that teems with visitors, and the old man likes it that way; he prefers to do as little as possible and takes no pleasure in anything except for the occasional cakes made by his employer, who is known only as 'Pavarotti's wife' on account of her being married to a man who uncannily resembles the late opera singer. The old man rarely speaks and, when cakes or spiders are not forthcoming, barely even eats, living on a meagre diet of cheese and crackers.
Of the trickle of curious visitors that comes into the museum, some arrive with a specific purpose in mind, one that is at odds with the designated aim of the place. Pavarotti's wife intended it as a place that might discourage potential suicides, but its success in achieving this objective is far from definitive. According to one press cutting about the museum, it is 'incoherent and insensitive', though the same article describes it as 'a handy advice shop for the emotionally fragile.' At any rate, fairly regular suicides take place within the museum and, in a sinister supernatural detail, it is at the exact moments when people kill themselves in the building that a spider creeps into the old man's mouth. It is in these deaths that the wider plot of Little Hands Clapping is grounded; Herr Schmidt has developed a professional relationship with a local doctor, Ernst Frölicher, who retrieves the corpses from the museum. If the old man has strange eating habits, then these are more than matched by those of the doctor, who keeps four chest freezers full of cadavers in his garage.
The peculiar mixture of horror, comedy and pathos that Rhodes deploys comes to a point of intersection in Doctor Frölicher, whose cannibalistic habits are somewhat anomalous with his virtuous character. Frölicher makes a point of drinking fair-trade coffee and tries to keeps his freezers full so as to increase their efficiency. His taste for human flesh is not a perversion, but an addiction; he assumes that all doctors must try it at some time but, having sampled a kidney early on his career, he is unable to quit - although some of the offal is now reserved for his dog. He connects the habit to his strict ethical code by treating his unorthodox disposal of the bodies as a means of protecting the museum and its management from disgrace. The old man has no comparable ethics. He too wishes to conceal the suicides from Pavarotti's wife, but this is neither to protect her nor to subvert her work, but simply so that the responsibilities of his job are kept to a minimum.
The old man is a flat character, a straightforward villain Indeed, Rhodes' characters are often pawns, whose frequently tragic destinies cannot be changed. He never comes across as an omnipotent narrator, however; it is as though he is merely the storyteller, who narrates events as they happened. This has been a constant in his work, which has often tended to eschew familiar locations in favour of more unknown places that can more easily be mythologised. Although he is a British writer, he has set only one of his novels in the UK (Gold, whose action takes places in a quiet Welsh village), and a number of his short stories are completely devoid of any sense of place at all. Little Hands Clapping is set partly in Portugal, but predominantly in the German town that is home to the suicide museum. No distinctive details are assigned to this town, making it impossible to locate, and impossible to determine whether it is supposed to be based on an actual location.
However, one actual place alluded to in the novel functions as its cultural, even if not its geographical, setting. This is the town of Hamelin, best known for the legend of the Pied Piper who was called in to rid the place of rats but, following a dispute over remuneration, also lured away all of its children. Indeed, Robert Browning's interpretation of the legend provides Rhodes with his title:
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,Out came the children running.
Hamelin makes an appearance in the novel as the birthplace of Pavarotti's wife, who was so disturbed by this story that she felt the need to do something positive - hence the founding of her museum. Upon first glance, this may appear to be just one more of Rhodes' throwaway comments about a character's eccentricities. But, in the context of this particular novel, it has deeper meaning, aligning Little Hands Clapping with the folktale tradition that is implicit in his earlier work. By including the reference to the Pied Piper legend, Rhodes situates his placeless narrative in the same folkloric world; his Germany is the same Germany as that of the Hamelin of that legend.
It has the same black humour, too. Browning's version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is at once playful and dark, telling the story of the ensnared children in language that skips like those children's little feet. Rhodes uses comic rather than poetic language to produce his tone, but the resulting effect is similar. The grey old man is a kind of inverted Pied Piper, and all the more sinister for his muteness. While the Pied Piper legend tells of children being led away from their town, Little Hands Clapping tells of people being drawn towards the suicide museum. But the darkly capricious style is not quite sustained for the entire length of the novel. As it draws towards its climax, the uneasy humour descends into outright farce, reaching its nadir in an episode in which Frölicher's dog throws up a human penis. One of the reviews of the suicide museum that are quoted in Little Hands Clapping describes it as, 'A curious mixture of stark, disturbing realism and high camp.' This can almost be taken as a description of the text in which it is embedded. Some of the events in the novel may seem to be absurd and unrealistic, but the book is consistently realistic in its portrayal of human feeling. This earths the more outlandish elements - though not fully, leaving the novel teetering just over the edge of plausibility and confirming it as a modern and macabre folk tale.
Review by Alan Ashton-Smith