“ Author: Michael Frayn / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 04 April 2013 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Faber & Faber / Title: Skios / ISBN 13: 9780571281459 / ISBN 10: 0571281459 / Alternative EAN: 9780571281411 „
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If you've ever flown to a travel destination, you'll know the people standing at the exit gate holding up placards with the names of the passengers they're to meet and take to their respective resorts. Have you ever felt the urge to approach one of them and claim to be the person whose name they've got on their placard? Playwright and novelist Michael Frayn confesses in an interview that the idea has struck him. "It had been in my mind for a while," says Frayn. "Every time I arrived at an airport and saw the line of people holding up cards, I thought: what would happen if I went up to one of them? How far would I get?" He hasn't done it, however, but used it as the core of a plot for a novel. "I haven't got the courage to do it myself but the nice thing about writing fiction is you've got a lot of assistants who are braver than I am." One of the characteristics of literature is that it allows us to live imaginary parallel lives different from our actual ones.
Oliver Fox, a young Brit - thick blond hair falling into his eye, soft brown eyes that make women melt - has come to the Greek island of Skios to spend a week in a cottage with a woman he's chatted up in a bar in England. The cottage belongs to friends of his on-and-off girlfriend. He and his new conquest are to meet at the airport in Skios. While waiting for his luggage he gets a message from her that she's delayed. He realises that he's forgotten the address of the cottage and sees himself camping in the airport for God knows how long. He's suddenly overcome by nausea. Why is he like this? Why does he always behave like an idiot? Will he ever change? More nausea because he knows that he'll never change. He's sick of himself and yearns for a different life.
Then he sees an attractive young woman holding up a placard with the name of Dr. Norman Wilfred. On the spur of the moment he decides to be this man. He assumes that he's a physician but decides to tread carefully until he's sure of his new identity. By mistake he has grabbed Dr. Wilfred's suitcase at the luggage carousel which has the same kind of name tag as the one he got from his on-and-off girlfriend at home. The waiting woman's behaviour makes it clear that he's someone important.
The real Dr. Norman Wilfred is a renowned scientist, the world-famous authority on the scientific organisation of science. He's been invited by the Fred Toppler Foundation on Skios to deliver a lecture to a group of people who've gathered there to be enlightened. The aim of the foundation is the advancement of civilisation. Only the best luminaries are invited to lecture, money is no problem. The guests come from all over the world, for the final lecture some even arrive by helicopter (the Greek Orthodox archbishop) and by yacht (a Russian oligarch). Dr. Norman Wilfred has delivered his lecture on many occasions in many countries to many rich people and is quite fed up with the whole circus. What keeps him going is the fact that he's well paid and pampered by whoever invites him and the occasional female guest who wants to know more about the topic.
The story is one of misunderstandings on all fronts as you can imagine. Suspense is created by the question what will happen when the real and the fake Dr. Norman Wilfred will meet. Even more by the question what Oliver Fox will talk about when the great lecture is due on the last night of the annual meeting. After all he knows zilch about the topic. No, that's not correct. He doesn't even know what the topic is! Up to now he's always been able to come up with something when it was required. He often starts talking not knowing where it will lead him and surprises himself with what he does talk about in the end. With this adventure, however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
The novel didn't catch my eye in a book shop or on Amazon. It caught my ear when I was listening to Saturday Review on BBC Radio 4 in April 2012. I like listening to this programme and the lively discussions on works of art. Often the opinions are divided. In the case of Skios they were not. There was a lot of giggling and laughing, the participants had obviously all enjoyed the book immensely. I decided at once to read it, and checked it on Amazon. Unfortunately I had forgotten that such groups get hard cover editions for their discussions. I wasn't willing to spend so much money on the book and then also pay overseas postage for it. Although I was convinced of the sincerity of the hilarity of the Saturday Reviewers, a grain of doubt remained if I'd have the same feelings. The idea of spending my hard earned Amazon vouchers on a book I wouldn't enjoy much troubled me. I decided to wait until the paperback edition was out and the price had gone down. When it had reached 87p I struck.
I was happy to read the book at last and I fully agree with the enthusiastic panel of BBC's Saturday Review. The story is a farce. Michael Frayn, a famous playwright of farcical plays, wanted to see if the genre also worked in written form for individual readers. Laughter in a theatre is infectious. Would they also see the fun and be amused when reading alone at home? Obviously, yes. A farce is a comedy characterized by improbable situations and broad satire. In Skios you've got improbable situations galore due to the mix-up of the two characters. As if this weren't enough, Oliver Fox's chat-up girlfriend and the on-and-off one also arrive soon afterwards. Satire is produced by describing the silly behaviour of the guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation who consider themselves an intellectual elite mainly because of the size of their bank account. A shady criminal transaction is thrown in as an extra.
I like it that Frayn doesn't use superfluous descriptions and paddings. He's thought up a crazy plot, crazy characters and describes them matter-of-factly. Seemingly positive remarks are repeated several times until they become silly and turn into the opposite. We're led onto a high intellectual level only to realise that there isn't much below it. Oliver Fox carries the story. He's able to do so because he's got the kind of charm that attracts both men and women. They move him along when he himself doesn't know where he's going. He's a blagger, a show-off, a charmer, a smooth operator, a swindler blessed with the gift of the gab. He could sell ice to the Eskimos. He never gets qualms of conscience because he has no conscience. He wouldn't know how to spell the word. What he does for a living, where the money comes from he needs for his escapades is something we never learn, but it doesn't really matter. There'll always be someone willing to pay for him.
Dr. Norman Wilfred, the elderly, unattractive, cynical scientist, who's lived for years on his one (boring) lecture also understands that something is wrong with him and is also too self-content and lazy to do anything about it. In his outward appearance, education and way of life he's a stark contrast to Oliver Fox. Deep down however, they have something in common.
The guest and the staff as well as two recurring taxi-drivers are flat characters which isn't a bad thing if their flatness is funny.
I'd say that I was at the edge of my seat waiting for the denouement but I read the book in bed. I didn't fall off the mattress when it came, but it was certainly surprising and unforeseen for me. It's a grandiose finale worthy of the Greek setting. I'm sure the Gods responsible for the arts have applauded.