Cole the Magnificent by Tony Williams
Reviewed by Antony Rowland
Building on his brilliant and unsettling collection of flash fiction in All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten (2012), and then his astonishing debut novel Nutcase (2017), Tony Williams has gone a step further in his new book, Cole the Magnificent (Salt, 2023). This long (414pp.) and always entertaining novel is a rollicking picaresque of fiction: think Tom Jones if his dad had been butchered early on, or his innards had been turned into mackerel bait.
The book begins with the protagonist’s brief and brutal upbringing in lord Harald’s steading. Williams has clearly researched in detail the historical topography of such dwellings: ‘Each steading’, for example, ‘was a cluster of low buildings with a hall at the centre’. Readers of Nutcase will not be surprised to learn that Williams unflinchingly engages with the violence never far from such homely steadings: Harald has been dispatched from his ‘haystack kingdom’ by page four, and the ‘hero’ escapes death by hiding in a tannery vat full of urine. The visceral murder of Harald makes The Game of Thrones look like a comedy of wimps. This beginning typifies the strengths of Williams’ novel: its eye for detail is matched with a delicious eloquence, as in the opening paragraph when ‘Gold rings were considered no more valuable than hazelnuts, and if a stray dog lay down and cleaned itself, it was made an earl’.
Williams’ imaginative flair for parable is unparalleled in contemporary fiction. Such loquacious fictions lead the reader into the poetic details of extraordinary tales in which, for example, a fish gives birth to an eel that becomes an old woman who has aged fifty years in a herring’s stomach. The enjoyable exuberance is held in check by a wryness that pastiches such ancient tales: the old woman gives birth to ‘ten thousand young, who grew up to be the famous Danish army that invaded the Saxon lands’. Such pastiche encompasses the biblical too, as when one version of the character Niven concludes that she becomes an abbess in convent in a cave and ‘lived there in peace and died at the age of two hundred and twenty-nine’. Rather than revealing any deeper meaning, Williams emphasises that the power of such parables and allegories lies in their joyful approach to imaginative language. The savouring of their bizarre poetry, much like the novel itself, is the main thing.
Accordingly, Williams often draws on his strengths as a poet to create a vigorous and enticing prose, as when Cole is ‘slurping up a bowl of stewed hogget’. In addition, the book includes fictional passages of contemporaneous poetry: as with his depictions of medieval village life, Williams has stewed himself in such verse in order to produce such convincing poems that nevertheless retain a characteristic playfulness. As with his depictions of village life, there is nevertheless an unflinching approach to what it must have been like to live in a world of failing crops, starvation and patriarchal violence. Cosy and lyrical descriptions of peeping cottages are undercut by this undercurrent of poverty and violence: in a ‘quilt of hedges’, a fox chases after geese, a mob gathers on the horizon and there is ‘always murder’ behind the clerk ‘riding hither with a satchel full of laws’. And there’s always the plague, of course, too, if all else fails. One of the most attractive prospects in the novel is when the ageing Brand (who kills Harald at the beginning of the book) is offered the illusory promise of a few more peaceful summers simply drinking in front of the fire. Most of the characters in Cole the Magnificent would leap at the chance, disengaged as they are in this narrative from legends of rich spoils, comely maidens and domesticated dragons. They would rather stick to the cheeses and avoid starvation.
The reader understands early on that there is no ‘true’ version of Cole’s story: numerous alternatives are provided in which, for example, the Life of Cole written by ‘Eutychius of Alexandra, which Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti refers to as completely authoritative’ has not been ‘adequately scraped of flesh, and it was eaten by starving Flemish soldiers during the siege of Ghent’. Overall, scraped of sentimentality and false romance, this is a delicious romp of a novel that encompasses magical journeys, poetic parables, unflinching violence and witchcraft. Williams is the only contemporary novelist who would have a character eat a deer or fox turd, and then sob at the taste. Readers looking for a batch of domestic realism set in Camden should look elsewhere. One of the key moments for this reader is when a band of brothers, including Cole, give up their road trip, accuse each other of incipient smelliness, and disband. Instead of the expected revenge narrative against Harald’s murderer, the novel then turns—I will not give any spoilers—into something much more complex, magical and dark. Take the hogget while you can, dear reader, and don’t look over your shoulder.