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Thursday 29 February 2024

ABANDONATI - Book review

Garry Kilworth’s 1988 dystopian novel Abandonati is a slim volume but it packs a powerful punch.

The abandonati are the street people, homeless or mentally ill, with no place to go – the abandoned ones, unwanted castaways from our society.

The blurb inside describes it as a funny and moving fable. And it is that.

Some unspecified apocalypse has left groups of people, mostly dazed and without purpose, save scavenging for food – and hopefully, booze – in a deserted and seriously damaged vast city.

Guppy is one of the scavengers and he is not particularly bright – he didn’t even know he was named after a fish – and he is an alcoholic. ‘You just forgot things. You been boozin’ so long it’s made your brain soft. That don’t mean you’re stupid, do it? Stupid is when you pretend to know everything, and don’t...’ (p32)

He soon encounters a little but cocky guy called Rupert and a big yet docile black fellow Trader.

Rupert is convinced that the rich people have escaped to another planet, leaving the ‘dregs’ behind. He is determined to construct a space ship to follow them.

There are two short italicised sequences. One shows two spacemen landing on a planet with breathable air. They walk on purple springy grass – which is spooky for me, as many years ago when our daughter was small I made up a bedtime story about a boy called Jack who had many adventures, among them walking on purple springy grass! The other sequence again features two men, army officers in a bunker, who appear to be still fighting a war... I’m not sure whether these inserts explain the apocalypse, or are flashback vignettes; to my mind they seemed out-of-place, interrupting the flow of the trio’s journey. A minor quibble.

Before long, the reader is wrapped up with trio’s quest through the devastated city, confronting violent gangs and also a friendly bunch of folk who have found a secret cache of wine in the crypt of a church. Another group they meet are travellers – and one of their women takes a shine to Guppy with amusing consequences.

All three are endearing in their own way.

Rupert has a tendency to swear – not a lot – but it is remarked upon by the gentle giant Trader: ‘You do too much swearing. It doesn’t mean anything if you do too much’ (p67) – which is so true!

However, Guppy is the core of the book, which, among other things, is about humanity surviving despite adversity. ‘Guppy was illiterate, but he could read people like books’ (p106). ‘Guppy couldn’t hold something in his mind for very long. Other thoughts kept coming in, day by day, and evicting the current owners. Guppy’s mind was not inhospitable to thoughts, but there was limited space and only one or two could remain in residence at any set time’ (p130). ‘You can’t help loving someone who makes you think you’re special’ (p131).

There are instances of gentle humour, distress, and even a poignant death – but Guppy manages to swim through it all. This is a very moving book whose characters tend to live on after the last page. Indeed, they are not abandoned. 

PS - The cover features artwork by Dave McKean. He came to prominence with covers for DC comics. My failing, but his artwork - and this cover - do not appeal to me.

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