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Fair Exchange

Stuart Bailie | 09:33 UK time, Thursday, 25 October 2012

Back in 1965, the film director Jean-Luc Godard hauled a twisted story out of the chill streets of Paris. It was about a detective called Lemmy Caution, ever-smoking and sharply handsome like a noir hero. The city of Alphaville confounded him with bad directions and unfaithful ciphers. He escaped with the girl Natasha, but only with the help of poetry and a deal of love. One critic, I can't remember whom, called it the flight from a "semiological underworld".

This comes to mind when I read Exchange Place by Ciaran Carson. Again, there are strange journeys around Paris, into arcades, back alleys and cul de sacs. Identities are smudged and articles are misplaced. The characters take solace in gentleman's tailoring, vintage watches and elegantly bound books. Then at frequent intervals, the narrative flits to Belfast.

Exchange Place is a funky little conduit in the Cathedral Quarter. It runs parallel to Commercial Court, a patch of the old city that sustains texture, history and intrigue. The author is drawn here in search of old ghosts and ambiguous steers. Even without the author's direction, you can sense that this location is a potential wormhole.

Readers of Ciaran Carson will be familiar with his labyrinthine method. He favours the historical aside, the arcane quote and meanings that get lost in translation. The central figure in Exchange Place is a writer whose words start to merge in the plot in a reflexive way. Flann O'Brien is the daddy of this method, but here's another interesting meander.


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