In his latest travel-inspired novella, Matthew Asprey turns his attention to Tbilisi, Georgia, where his cynical, well-read (of course), misogynistic PhD Dr Arthur James Lewis travels with his Polish wife Ludka to Tbilisi to work on the historical television program Caledonian Blood. The historical and linguistic background is impeccable, with Asprey using local slang terms such as Pudenda and Kochanie to give the work that added touch of foreign authenticity and authority, which other aspiring works often lack, or simply apply in an artificial way. You can hear the Polish and Russian accents infused throughout the prose. The work is a kaleidoscopic mixture of accents, characters and ethnicity as the characters traverse the Orient for money, work, and the occasional runaway.
The work has more similarities to Asprey’s earlier Red Hills of Africa (2009), than with any other work; shrewd academics, sultry mentalities and amorous characters amongst an atmosphere of sexual fervour and monetary distress, and, of course, a good dose of the exotic. Lewis is a novelist of books concerning the ancient world; as historical consultant and sometime Russian translator, he has a meticulous passion for historical accuracy and his book collection, while disregarding e-books. As with all of Asprey’s work, the winning touch is in the thorough details and descriptions of localities and dialects that flesh out the story. Asprey manages to avoid clichés and provides, instead, colourful descriptions, comparing a bare buttock to a quivering “pale soufflé” while writing of crumbling Stalinist relics as “concrete cancer.”
I am not certain if Lewis—with a doctorate in Roman Britannic historiography, and with a view of women as ancient as his thesis topic—is meant to be portrayed as aggressively pretentious, but this is certainly how he initially comes across. Yet his views, however archaic, are delivered with a good though infrequent dose of humour. Yet Lewis runs the risk of being disliked to the point where the reader may fail to find any redeeming features of the character. His observations are certainly droll enough, yet his morally questionnable nature and slight superiority complex threaten to undermine an otherwise delightfully comic and raw character. But he is often so at the mercy of circumstance that this dislike of his character often turns into pity.
With this latest addition, Asprey’s collection of novellas are beginning to mirror the misadventures of one General Harry Flashman, from George McDonald Fraser’s popular Flashman Chronicles, as Asprey’s works are a cocktail of travel, sex and rivalry. Lewis is as unscrupulous as Flashman, but appears to be reluctantly subservient to the will of those around him, even though he does put up a fight to pull off a historically accurate television script while making some euros along the way.
The impeccable details of the landscape and the smorgasbord of linguistic phrases are intimidating without being completely overwhelming. They instead invite the reader into the curious and neglected environment of Eastern Europe, as Asprey turns his attention to the chaotic vibrancy of Tbilisi. Readers also catch a glimpse of Istanbul, through the character Jan Podolak, the Polish brother-in-law of Lewis, whose flagrantly antisocial attitude and vehement distaste for the West is delivered in a very comedic way that lifts the story, as he is on the hunt for his eloping daughter. As I read of his own respective misadventure I imagine him to resemble Stasiu—the husband of the Sopranos’ housemaid. The story also has the investigative nature of an Eric Ambler tale (whose 1939 book Coffin for Dimitrios is also set in Istanbul).
Following his great Angelique in San Francisco (2012), in which he writes from a female perspective, Asprey adds more complexity to his female characters, in Lewis’ wife Ludka, for instance. Asprey also injects greater dimension into cities he writes of and the rest of the characters in a masterful way. Some of the female characters (and undoubtedly a few male ones), are quite insufferable, though I daresay they are meant to be. It all adds to the excitingly chaotic milieu of these Eastern European settings. The book is fast-paced but charged with ripe and colourful, enjoyable characters whose own histories are thoroughly explored—a hallmark of an Asprey novella. It is an aphoristic triumph that follows the cynical though hapless Lewis as he battles his way through money woes, artistic integrity, a rebellious cast, nausea and Turkish coffee, with his grandfatherly jacket in tow. Throw in some Miklós Rózsa epics and you have a very fine novella indeed.
The book is now available on Amazon.