I love a story teller. Come in, close the door. Of course you can smoke, what is cancer between friends such as us? Now where were we? Oh yes, it all began when...
Andrew Nicoll’s If You’re Reading This, I’m Already Dead kicks off in Berlin in the last days of the Third Reich just as the Allied bombs are dropping from the sky and people are dying by the thousand. In the midst of the mayhem a former circus acrobat called Otto Witte somehow finds the time to write down his account of how he became the King of Albania.
The King of Where? Talk about a tall tale. Nicoll -- a political journalist, so he’s used to spin – has weaved fiction from fiction. I got over the start, which I thought was a touch overdone, and allowed Otto and his hugely enjoyable tale to grow on me, his breath hot on my ear as he bends in low to explain what it was really like in that cellar in Buda – or was it Pest?
Witte, you see, was a real person, who went to his grave calling himself ‘The former king of Albania’. He even had it stamped on his identity card. He’d claimed to have successfully fooled the Albanian army into making him king and giving him a harem, only for his ruse to be discovered after just five days. Facts of his story didn’t add up, however, and it is widely thought he was either a liar or a fantasist. In another age he would have been a novelist, or perhaps a politician, and been well paid for it.
A recent discovery is Charles Portis’ True Grit, the novel which inspired first John Wayne and then the Coen Brothers. The book surprised me by being better than either film, thanks largely to the narrator, Maddy, who manages to be both old and young, experienced and naive. Like Renton in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, she stayed in my head after I closed the book. Otto is in there too, now. Laughing his head off and sitting on a camel.