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Alma & Irva. The Twins who Saved a City
Edward Carey
Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London: Harcourt, Inc., 2003.
$ 24.00, 207pages, ISBN 0-15-100782-9.

Caroline Marie
Paris IV-Sorbonne

In his first novel, Observatory Mansions (2001), Edward Carey organised human relationships within a house, the lodgers of which were all characterized by physical and mental oddity. The narrator obsessively stored items he stole from his fellow human beings; his determination to wear gloves illustrated his love / hate relationship with the rest of mankind. The book was illustrated by the author and ended with a list of the 996 objects that constituted his "exhibition of love." Edward Carey's second novel, Alva & Irva. The Twins who Saved a City, bears a close resemblance to the first one both thematically and æsthetically; only, this time, the scale is larger and the structure more complex.

Alva, the bolder of the twin sisters, tells the story of their lives: how they were born in a family devoted to collecting—their father's collection of stolen foreign stamps caused his death—and scale modelling—their grandfather "talk[s] to his collection of matchstick buildings" [24]—, and how they gradually grew apart because Alva wanted to discover the world whereas Irva would neither talk nor go out of their home. Obviously, the twins are meant to embody contrasting attitudes to the world, one eagerly walking its streets and taking pictures for the other to create a plasticine model, called Alvairvalla, of Entralla, the fictitious city they never leave.

Alva strives to merge with her environment, hence the branding of flesh with cartographic patterns, from the mole on the face of the twins' mother which is "by some surely meaningful coincidence the exact shape of [their] city" [16], to the map of the whole world which Alva has tattooed over her adolescent body: "I had the world inserted into my skin" [123]. The numerous variations on that motif sometimes bring forth disturbingly far-fetched images, such as when the unusually tall twins are referred to as "storeys upon storeys of the skyscrapers of Alva and Irva" [62], or disappointingly trite images, like the hidden items kept by the postmen in their lockers: Alva stores maps, Postman Pirin "his magazines of naked women" [118] and Postman Olt "women's clothing, tights and bras and panties and stuff all folded up." However, it mostly results in pleasantly incongruous evocations, such as when the twins' father, a postman like most of their family, refuses to soil the stamps by franking them and is assigned to licking and sticking them onto envelopes, which triggers off erotic musings in both their parents, at that time hardly more than strangers:

And as Father's long pink tongue exposed itself in front of Mother's, in front of the customers, Father imagined himself licking a tiny segment of Mother's skin, approximately one and a half centimetres by one centimetre, and Mother too imagined herself being licked. Minute by minute she would imagine different one-and-a-half-centimetres-by-one-centimetre portions of herself being licked by Father's large and, to her, irresistible tongue. [20]

The narrative which could be very abstract with its emphasis on mapping and representation, is surprisingly sensual, since Alva equates her greed for the world with "another type of hunger" [85]:

I have always found libraries sexual places. […] in the library, perhaps simply because of the great exciting mounds of knowledge, I can feel myself warming up. And I enjoyed particularly warm feelings inside the map room, viewing and stroking the colourful surfaces of so many countries, and looking across from our desk to other people, particularly to a certain fair-haired boy. [85]

Sensuality and the tactile grasping of the world helps in understanding it:

More and more people came to know of the plasticine city, […], and soon the house swelled with callers, with people looking at their lives. They understand them more when they are in miniature. [185]

The plasticine model of the city is therefore meant to represent the mediating function of any form of representational art. Plasticine Alvairvalla is expected to prove a perfect world, a "very practicable utopia" [67], "an ideal city of perfect balance between left and right, north and south, east and west. Each half of the street was a mirror of the other half and each street had an identical street on the other side of the city" [68]. Yet, Alva increasingly rejects the very notion of identity and strives to assert her difference. When, at the age of sixteen, she draws on her forehead with her school compass "the letter 'N' for 'North' " [97], she is both attempting to differentiate herself from her twin sister and to negotiate her own relationship to the world, "As if [she] were a compass" [97]. That violent attempt at idiosyncrasy draws the reader's attention to the possible cause of the twins' failure: torn between exact identity and radical opposition, they are entrapped within a binary conception of the world: "Above and below. High and low. Everywhere and nowhere. Upside and downside. Forwards and backwards. Outwards and inwards. Outside and inside. Over and under. Alva and Irva" [109]. They keep trying to reduce the world to its perfectly mastered and coinciding replica, almost similar to Borgès's map of the size of the landscape it represents: "a whole city in a street" [168], Alva exclaims in triumph. Both fail to acknowledge the impossible nature of the task, due to the intrinsic changeability of the world: "the city kept on changing, challenging us to keep up, old houses would be knocked down and new houses would be built on streets we had already completed. And so we would have to study the street again, add the new buildings. The city kept on changing, it wouldn't keep still" [145]. However eccentric and comical, Alva & Irva deals with the anguish of the human condition.

Accumulating replicas of the world is at one and the same time an inspiring passion and a curse, the twins becoming the flesh and blood repository of humanity's gains as well as its waste :

All those many Entrallans I had passed—the weight of seeing so many people, the endless busy numbers of them. The inertia they cause, how many little fragments of conversations I had heard, how many different shadows of words from behind doors and windows, […] how much I'd seen, the weight of collecting everyone, causing me such tiredness, such sadness. [144]

Their house, increasingly packed with plasticine houses and streets:

The spare bedroom, my old room, was completely full (on the bed, under the bed, around the bed), and even Mother's room was half filled with boxes of Outer Entralla (a whole half of the room cut off now by stacks of boxes) and some of the kitchen too [ 144]

is very much like Carey's accumulative style; enumeration is a literary device he prizes above all others. Typically, the evocation of the stolen letter that caused the downfall of the twins' father begins with a list of the letters that did not:

It didn't really matter that Mirgarita Gavala's letter from her son in Valencia, Spain (with a light-blue stamp—labelled España—of King Juan Carlos II at value of eight pesetas), didn't arrive—she didn't suppose that the boy would be so considerate as to write to his ailing mother anyway. It didn't really matter that the response to a sheaf of poems the poet Angel Berg had sent off to a publishing house in London, England (with a ten-and-a-half pence stamp of the Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse, and with the outline of the head of Queen Elizabeth II in the top right-hand corner), never turned up because the letter was a rejection anyway. [30]

One more unnoticed missing letter, from Zurich, Switzerland, is added to the list before the fatal one from Vienna, Austria, which was reported missing and led to his arrest. Edward Carey's mock-encyclopedic style fits his endeavour to explore every nook and cranny of the real world, and to map every fictional possibility.

Mapping and anatomy are key themes in Carey's work; it could even be argued that it is concerned with the anatomy of life itself, as the image of the divided city after the earthquake suggests: "This bisected residence was reminiscent of dolls' houses that open down the centre, revealing the rooms and their contents in two equal halves" [155]. In Edward Carey's fiction of reflections, the anatomy of life is bound to be an anatomy of art. Paradoxically, the earthquake that destroys the city of Entralla makes its model alive and potent, since it serves as the guideline according to which the actual city is rebuilt, life finally imitating the piece of art which previously represented it. As the duplicates of Entralla proliferate, "Enlarged photographs of the plasticine old city were placed on stands throughout the actual old city" [191], the frontier between life and art becomes blurred: "Has ever a city been so legible?" [72] the author of the guide to Entralla wonders. Indeed, the novel constantly questions the art / life simile with such images as Penelope-like Irva postponing the moment when her work / life ends: "The closer we came to finishing the more desperate she grew. To slow down our process still further she would secretly destroy buildings and blame it on the mice" [146]. The reader is caught up in a dazzling maze of thought-provoking analogies. Alva & Irva provides a map of the fictional city depicted in the narrative; it is divided into parts, subparts and interludes, all of which open with a photograph of the plasticine city made by Carey himself; the dust-jacket even shows the author contemplating his sculpture of the twins and their model city, so that the reader is hard-pressed to tell whether the photographs illustrate the narrative or whether the whole narrative glosses the city's replica. Similarly, Alva's narrative which apparently embeds extracts from the guide book to Entralla after its restoration is in fact edited by the guide's author. Alva & Irva is not exactly a page-turner, its charm is far more insidious and quizzical: the reader shuts the book amazed at having enjoyed the trip to such an unremarkable place as middle-of-nowhere Entralla so much and, perhaps, also wondering whether Edward Carey might not have let himself be ensnared in the same binary scheme that caused his twins' downfall.


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