Book Review: Built on Sand by Paul Scraton
Can the past ever be anything more than just an idea? What are the consequences of agreeing that it can’t? These are just some of the important questions asked by Paul
Scraton in his new novel Built on Sand, reviewed here by Ashley Murphy
Set in modern-day Berlin, the novel is narrated by an anonymous tour guide, a lone voice wrestling with the idea of the authentic in a culture that has become painfully self-aware. It’s a story about other stories, where people chase ghosts, where steps lead to nothing, and where candles flicker in the wind for names that will soon be forgotten.
We meet a young millennial couple who discover that fleeing the modern metropolis provides little escape from the malaise of late-stage capitalism. We’re introduced to Markus, a former member of the eastern-blocs shadowy security forces, a fact which some refuse to let him forget, despite his obvious struggles with the past. Then there’s Boris, the aspiring avant-garde film-maker who disappears from the novel when he admits that reality has become far stranger than the possibilities promised by fiction.
The city itself is always changing, mutating into something new, writing new stories on top of its old ones. If this novel had a soundtrack, it would the whine of cranes circling the skyline, accompanied by the endless pummeling of pneumatic drills.
The shifting city coincides with the slow disintegration of a relationship between the narrator and his enigmatic partner, K. Like other friendships and love affairs within the novel, it appears to be ending not with bang, or whimper, but with a tired yawn.
But of all the mysteries the characters are contemplating, the biggest one of all seems to be themselves. And it may well be a conundrum that’s impossible to solve. It’s comforting to think of ourselves as fixed, static objects. We like to think of ourselves as being “real,” that our lives are solid. We look at a picture on a passport, or the name on a driving license, and we say: “Yes, that’s me. I am me!” And yet every character in Built on Sand is as fluid as history itself, a collection of memories, experiences, and relationships that are always changing, and that can only be understood in retrospect. And just as they’re coming to terms with who they were, their present selves are changing in ways that they cannot understand, and in ways so slow and subtle that they hardly notice them at all.
Built on Sand also explores the ongoing struggle between nationalism and liberalism, the desire for a sense of belonging and the dream (or maybe the fantasy) of becoming a global citizen. And what better battleground than Berlin to explore these opposing drives? The city was a focal point for many 20th century conflicts, whereas today it’s a site for 21st-century anxieties around mass immigration, liberal democracy, and the forces that may arise in opposition. When an oversized German Flag fills the sky near the end of the novel, it’s a fitting symbol filled with ambiguity.
It seems as if the modern individual is faced with two choices: a nostalgic form of nationalism, or a shapeless, poorly defined global liberalism where history and identity are nothing but stories to be exchanged over a few pints of reasonably priced beer. It’s like having your back pressed against a hard rock while you stare out at an endless void of nihilistic consumerism and constant self-doubt.
Built on Sand paints a world populated by atomised individuals yearning for an authentic connection to the past. The failure to connect in any meaningful way leaves them drifting through a series of interchangeable European cities, where the only thing they can comment on with any certainty is the quality of the coffee.
Built on Sand is a short, compelling novel that captures the mood of 21st-century modernity. It’s a very modern narrative about the struggles of reconciling the past with the present, whilst always managing to keep an uneasy eye on the future. It’s an ideal novel for anyone who wants to understand more about what it really means to be a European citizen in the year 2019.
Influx Press is an independent publisher based in London. They publish “innovative and challenging fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction from across the UK and beyond.” Built on Sand is published in April 2019 and you can preorder it here.
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