Today on The Tattooed Book Geek I am pleased to be taking part in the Blog Tour for Retribution Road by Antonin Varenne translated by Sam Taylor with an excerpt from the book.
Thanks to Corinna Zifko for asking me to take part in the tour.
“We owe you our lives, Sergeant, but you are our worst nightmare . . .”
Burma, 1852. Sergeant Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives.
Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down.
From the Burmese jungle to the slums of London to the conquest of the Wild West, Antonin Varenne takes us on a thrilling journey full of sound and unabated fury, reviving the lapsed tradition of the great writers of boundless adventure. Sergeant Bowman belongs to that breed of heroes who inhabit the imaginations of Conrad, Kipling, Stevenson . . . Lost soldiers who have plunged into the heart of darkness and will cross the globe in search of vengeance and redemption.
Now that the blurb has given you an indication of what the book is about it is time for the excerpt.
Excerpt from Retribution Road.
Cesspits were no longer in vogue. For a few years now, the rich had been installing running water and individual toilets in their houses. The water was pumped from the Thames, ran through the pipes, and, once it was dirty, poured out into the sewers, before rejoining the river.
The winter had been dry and the spring warm. By May, the level of the Thames was already alarmingly low. In June, temperatures had reached record highs and the river had begun to run dry. The water that came from people’s taps had changed colour and the sewers, too dry, had started to become congested by the infl ux of all this extra waste. Sinks, bathtubs and toilets were blocked, cesspits had been dug in gardens again, and at the end of June the number of shit-collectors employed to empty these pits – many of whom had been put out of work by the arrival of indoor plumbing – had doubled.
Their carts crossed the streets at night, wheels jolting on the cobblestones, lamps hung on poles casting a meagre light over tired, mean old faces, cartloads of shit, and shapeless men wearing long coats that covered them down to their boots. They passed through the gates of the capital in silence, like the prisoners twenty years earlier who had transported corpses from the great cholera epidemic to mass graves.
They emptied their carts in the fields and went back into the city, loading up again and returning to the countryside, and so on until dawn, when the peasants paid them for their work. Two shillings and five pence for a cartload of dung. Prices had fallen as fast as the shit-collectors had got their jobs back. London had so much excrement to offer that the market had collapsed.
The sewers were now so dry that the armies of children searching in the shit for lost treasures to sell, had to dig into the faeces with spades and pickaxes rather than raking them out.
The temperature continued to rise. Waste from factories accumulated in oily, black layers on the surface of this river of putrid lava. Carcasses of cows and sheep from the slaughterhouses, stuck in the mud, slowly passed the new Parliament in Westminster. Skeleton legs poked up in the air as on an abandoned battlefi eld and crows swooped down to rest on them. It took half a day for the horns of a bull to move from Lambeth Bridge, pass under the windows of the House of Lords, and disappear under Waterloo Bridge.
In certain places, it was said, you could cross the river on foot. On July 2, the heat was unparalleled, and the entire city stank like a giant corpse.
All along the riverbank, windows were blocked up. The streets were deserted, and there was almost no traffic on the Thames. A few little steamboats still had enough power to advance
through the mud, their waterwheels threshing up a foul black spray, but the absence of any wind made it impossible for sailing boats to move. Ferryboats and barques, pushed forward by poles, could still navigate the river, but no-one wanted to take them anymore.
The rich left the city for their countryside homes or went off to the seaside. The courts hurried through their trials: men were judged in a few minutes, receiving unexpected pardons or death sentences for minor misdemeanours from judges who ran through the corridors with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses.
Parliament no longer sat.
In factories, the boilers not only produced sweltering heat but odours that were believed to be fatal. While the price of dung went into freefall, the market for drinking water boomed. Fountains dried up. Clean water from springs or wells, drawn far from the Thames riverbed, transported and sold for a fortune, was now too expensive for ordinary people. Dehydrated workers died in the furnaces of the steelworks. The Metropolitan police patrolled the empty pavements. London was like a city under curfew or after a revolt, when the troops have charged and the anger has died down and the victims’ bodies have been collected. The coppers’ steel-capped boots echoed through abandoned streets, replacing the sounds of hammers and weavers’ looms. Outside the water board’s offices, increasingly large groups of men and women gathered to yell at officials. The police pushed them back to their slums, where the situation was most difficult. In the low parts of town, the sewage rose up through the gutters, seeping between the grilles and filling the side-streets and back-alleys with a vile mud. In cramped cellars where entire families lived, beneath the level of the roads, children in rags waded ankle-deep in the capital’s excreta. Panic gripped the city: how could you escape the air that you breathed?
Along with the unbearable stench and the fear of diseases came bitterness and slander. Scapegoats were sought. The Chinese, people said, were too silent; the Pakistanis smiled too much; the Jews were too good at business. The rich were too rich. The papists were stirring up trouble. The army was going to encircle the slums, it was all part of a plan. There were still parts of London that did not smell bad. The shit-collectors worked for the bosses; at night, they emptied their carts in the poor areas of town, spreading disease.
The only shops still flourishing were sellers of cloth. When their stock ran out, people used wooden planks, mattresses or furniture to block up their windows.
The restaurants and inns had closed.
The factories’ production had slowed and almost all activity had ceased in the port of London. The companies’ ships no longer went beyond Leamouth and North Woolwich. Goods were unloaded downstream, where the tides were strong enough to permit navigation and dilute the black river’s thick current. The dockers were out of work and London’s docks were deserted.
In the new port of St Katharine, the empty warehouses were padlocked, but the prowlers, day labourers, thieves and beggars had disappeared.
The East End gangs were, like everyone else, waiting for the port to come back to life, for London to be freed from this terror so they could all go back to work.
In this atmosphere of tension and inactivity, all London’s police constables had been ordered to appear on the streets and to be on their guard, to nip any minor disputes in the bud. Wherever you looked now, at any hour of the day or night, you would always see a copper. The sound of their whistles could be heard all over the city.
If the Underworld had a smell, it could surely be no different from this one, and this idea slowly gained ground: London really was turning into Hell. This was divine punishment for some buried crime, some monstrous sin. Preachers announced that the Great Stink was only the beginning, that damnation would be eternal and the noxious air merely the first wounds of a more terrifying retribution that would soon be visited upon England.
In London, people prayed, far more than they had done in a long, long time.
Purchase Retribution Road.
About Antonin Varenne.
Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.
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