To the Lighthouse

Vincent de Swarte – Pharricide (Confingo Publishing, 2019)

It’s not often that you read a whole novel in a day. It’s even rarer to find a novel that encourages you to do so. Vicente de Swarte’s Pharricide, newly translated into English by Nicholas Royle, is just such a novel; and the effect is tremendous.

You almost feel bad for the efforts of both writer and translator, that their work can be consumed in a single, nerve-tingling afternoon. But, in the reader’s defense, Pharricide is a roller coaster ride that is perfectly suited to rapid reading.

It is a descent into madness with action that dips and rises rapidly. It has many facets, all hanging together in an apparently simply arrangement which, when viewed closely, reveals a more complex structure filled with allusion, hints and suggestions.

It follows the progress of one Geoffrey Lefayen, lighthouse keeper and “executioner of Cordouan”, whose winter spent alone in the Cordouan lighthouse drives him into a state of murderous rage.

No reasons are given for his rage, other than his solitude and the hint of a traumatic childhood, although I suspect these may have been thrown in merely to supply the demanded motive. His violence is, instead, compulsive, ritualistic, and driven by pure animus.

De Swarte’s terrifying protagonist can be charmingly quirky at times. A taxidermist in love with his work; he amasses a small animal following including a friendly conga eel, a “red, red” crayfish “painted as if cooked”, a sick seagull and, later on, even bigger game.

Lefayen’s derangements culminate in a fantastical wedding ceremony. There are stuffed sea creatures presiding and the bride is a murderer on the run.

Lefayen’s lighthouse seems to attract criminals in fact. Like Lefayen himself, it casts out a light into the shadows, drawing in a variety of victims both deserving and undeserving. Early in the novel, Lefayen feels himself transforming into the lighthouse. He, as Lucifer, the lightbringer, attracts his victims as an anglerfish does its prey.

As a lot of Pharricide’s readerly enjoyment derives from the twists in its tale, the surprises and the shocks, I feel that to truly recommend the book I must leave my description of the text minimal. It isn’t often that a novel surprises me nowadays, and this one truly did. It would be unfair of me to ruin such surprises for others.

But rest assured that Pharricide is pacey, direct, and translated with a concision that rewards the quick reader, as the original too is said to have done. First published in 1998, the novel has taken a while to arrive upon our shores but it does now in a translation that is destined to win over plenty of new readers.

It is an excellent introduction to its small press, Confingo, and to an author still almost unknown in the Anglophone world.

Short, snappy, fun and frightening. Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide is a must-read for the summer. A perfect book for a lazy afternoon, a long-haul flight, or for passing the time while trapped alone inside a desolate lighthouse.

– Joe Darlington