It’s the way Caroline pisses onto the concrete during the lunch break that delights her work colleagues: in a steaming, splattery arc.
It’s the way Caroline pisses onto the concrete during the lunch break that delights her work colleagues: in a steaming, splattery arc. ‘It seemed to them an eloquent demonstration of the fact that the rules they lived by did not apply to her.’
Caroline is a donkey. During the day she analyses policy documents, calculates premiums and nibbles the pot-plants. In the evening she trots home across the city, through the chaotic tides of traffic and confusion of construction sites, to her keeper, Mr Shaw, to play chess.
Delightful, unforgettable and splendidly peculiar, Cornelius Medvei’s second novel opens with a journalist receiving a thick parcel of typescript papers. Muddled up with shopping lists, sweet-wrappers and jottings about Audrey Hepburn, is Mr Shaw’s memoir of his passionate and platonic love for a donkey. Caroline, remarks the journalist, is subtitled ‘A Mystery’ because it seems ‘to contain a profound and important truth that should be glimpsed but perhaps never fully grasped or understood’.
Mr Shaw (we never learn his first name) met Caroline on a family holiday in the mountains north of ‘the city’ (we never learn which, or even in what country.) They fell in love over a meal of radish tops. At the end of the holiday, Mr Shaw buys her, trots her back to the city and becomes a familiarly embarrassing, distracted and divorceable middle-aged man. He takes her to work (where she does her admirable pissing). When she brays with boredom in the yard by his office block, he continues the ride a little further, into the lift, and stables her next to the photocopy machine. During meetings with clients Mr Shaw puts her behind a screen, where she creaks the floorboards and emits a musty, warm smell. It doesn’t put customers off. She’s better at the job than Mr Shaw, and takes it over. At his retirement party, he’s ignored. It’s Caroline who is asked to sit at the head of the table, receive applause and be invited back to apply for ‘a management vacancy’.
Mr Shaw’s love grows desperate; his donkey is starting to find him dull company. All the carrots she eats (‘pure brain food’) have made her voracious for intellectual fulfilment. ‘Poor Caroline, with a dry sponge rattling about inside her head. What she needs is an education.’ He takes her to the city museum to see the walrus ivory chess-sets, projects slides of masterpieces of Italian painting onto her stable wall (‘with the aim of developing her colour sense’), walks her in the woods so that she can improve her knowledge of a type of mushroom called Russula (‘a very tricky genus’) and fails to get her tickets for Così fan tutte. At an outdoor screening of Roman Holiday, Caroline eats a flowerseller’s roses, knocks over the projector and races off into the dark, tangled up in the screen ‘like a distressed poltergeist, braying fitfully.’ As they hide in the bushes waiting for the police to leave the scene, Mr Shaw swells with pathetic pride. Caroline finds his chess-playing contemptible; but he can still provide her with ‘a stimulating evening out’.
Caroline isn’t a fable. There’s no message in it. What has happened? An insurance broker has fallen in love with a donkey, taught her to play chess, grown besotted and urgent, and then …? The novel doesn’t have a denouement or even, really, an ending. It’s a passing fancy: an emergence and a departure, something calmly extraordinary in the frenzy of ordinary, day-to-day city life, like a magical atomic particle (or, as Medvei puts it in his beautiful closing paragraph, ‘like an apparition of an old story’) flickering momentarily into existence, then gone.