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Lloyd Jones wants you to hate his new book about refugees

Lloyd Jones. Photo/David White

The wretched plight of refugees at a Hungarian railway station incensed Lloyd Jones so much that he wrote a book about human indifference and cruelty.

On another dazzling Wairarapa day, writer Lloyd Jones, a genial and cheerful character, is sitting on the veranda of a chichi Greytown pub talking about dark things, those fears that come in the night. “I almost can’t bear to say it. I’m in a narrow drain, a culvert that runs under the ground. The idea of crawling through there and, at a certain point, you think, ‘Oh, shit. This isn’t leading anywhere. I might turn around.’ And you can’t turn around, you can only keep going forward. Then I lurch awake. That’s my cage moment.”

His new book is The Cage. It’s a terrible book. I had been thinking how to construct that sentence. After all, you don’t tend to turn up to interview an author and tell them their book is so terrible that it gave you nightmares, that it had given you a phobia about going into the berry cage, never mind having to put the chickens in theirs. I have never said these things to an author.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

He laughs. He’s pleased. “You should hate it. The whole purpose, actually, was to make the reader slightly complicitous in the whole thing.”

It is also brilliant. It compels and repels. “Oh, thank you. It’s really nice of you to say that. It’s at that moment where I haven’t actually had feedback, except in-house feedback, which is like asking your mother, you know, what they think of you.”

Except that his mother would have said something like, “Oh, it’s all right, I suppose.”

“Ha. You’re right there.”

Refugees outside Budapest’s Keleti station in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

He comes from a family of door-slammers, table-thumpers and voice-raisers who never actually said anything. His mother would retire, silently wounded, to her bed and cups of tea would have to be used to cajole her back into family life. His memoir is called A History of Silence. He is a good talker, but not a show-offy one. He likes conversation, but not the one-upmanship storytelling so many male writers compete at. He is a good chap to have a drink with.

But he is a bit tricky. He’d splutter at that. I spluttered at him. “This,” I say, “is going horribly awry.” I am supposed to be asking him questions, but he is asking me questions. He points out, entirely reasonably, I suppose, that he won’t be writing about me and that he is genuinely interested. I am genuinely interested in the private life of someone who could write a book like The Cage, but good luck finding the key. He is also good at silence.

In 2007, he was widely tipped to win the Man Booker Prize for Mister Pip. He didn’t. He might have minded, but he says he didn’t. “No. And you never know that until the actual moment.” I believe him. He is not much good at the other job of the writer: promoting his books. I wasn’t able to help. I tell him I’m still not sure I’m glad I read his book. On balance, I think I am. But that now I’d like to forget all about it, thanks.

A Syrian mother and child trying to board a train at Keleti. Photo/Getty Images

“Ha, ha. Yeah, but don’t you think that’s exactly what happens in the world we live in? We’re witness to so much and we do exactly that, don’t you think? We’re all witnesses and we see too much and we’re never there in the right way of being there.”

His point, the point of the book, is that people don’t want to know. So, why would people want to read his book? “I don’t care if they do or they don’t.” His publisher might. “Well, obviously.” Of course he wants people to read it, otherwise why write it? “That’s me being contradictory.”

It is also him putting up a defence in case nobody wants to read it. “Well, yeah. It’s a sort of ‘f--- you!’ No, obviously I do want people to read it. And I do think the position the narrator finds himself in shouldn’t be a foreign position to the reader. We see the most extraordinary, bloody shocking things, then we go and make a cup of tea or we go and tend the garden.”

Refugees outside Budapest’s Keleti station in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

The Cage came out of what he and his partner, Australian author Carrie Tiffany, saw at the Budapest Keleti railway station in 2015. They had gone for a holiday, to meet his daughter, Sophia Duckor-Jones, who had been volunteering as an aid worker at a Syrian refugee camp in Greece where the refugees had put up a sign: “We’re Not Zoo Animals”.

There were thousands of refugees at the station, but no sanitation and nowhere for women to wash. The place and the people stank. “We have forgotten we have a smell.”

They stayed and tried to help, with small gestures of practical kindness: buying toothbrushes and toiletries and baby wipes and black tights for the women, so they could wash at the hose pipes with a modicum of modesty. What really pierced his consciousness and fuelled that indignation was “the indifference, a sort of icy indifference, that the locals had towards these people, which was shocking”.

His partner, Carrie Tiffany.

He came home and wrote out of anger in his writing shed. He is very private and lives, off the grid, in his lovely eco-house, on 9ha of remote land with a river and a beech forest, 15 minutes south-east of Martinborough in the Wairarapa. Sometimes Tiffany lives there, too, but sometimes they live in Melbourne, because her grown-up children are there. He didn’t want me to use her name, but there are plenty of pictures of the pair in the public domain.

He has three children from his marriage, including son Avi Duckor-Jones, who won Survivor NZ last year, and is happier talking about them, because they are all lovely and much, much cleverer than their old man. I don’t believe that for a moment. He once said that at university he was about as “clever as a sack of spuds”. “Well, I’m not the sharpest.” Oh, what rot. He’s just doing that Kiwi male self-deprecation thing. “No, I’m not. Honestly. No, I tried. I wasn’t lazy, but I just didn’t get it. The intellectual foundations weren’t in place … and I was a bit immature.” How did he get to be clever, then? The usual way, he says. By reading.

He became a sports journalist. He likes cricket. He plays in the Wairarapa for a loose assortment of gents of a certain age – he is 62 – known collectively as The Old Bastards. He loves boxing. Really? Isn’t it indefensible? “Yeah!” That may be what he loves about it. “Ha. I just sort of grew up with it. Everything’s revealed, really.” He enjoys contradictions.

His daughter, Sophia Duckor-Jones. Photo/Supplied

He is very good at observing damage, and the damaged. His parents, Llewellyn and Joyce, never spoke about their pasts, which were harrowing. Llewellyn was an orphan, one of six children discovered in a room with their dead mother in 1914. And according to family legend, Jones’s grandfather Arthur Jones had drowned at sea. Joyce was given up for adoption at four. You might say they locked up these childhoods in cages of their own making and tossed away the key.

In The Cage, two half-starved, filthy men wearing scraps of salvaged clothing are cast adrift in a place they don’t know, without any identification. At first, they are known as The Strangers, then later as the Doctor and Mole, but we assume they’re migrants or refugees. They are taken into a small country hotel, where the sign reads “All welcome”, and given a room and food. They can’t or won’t say what has made them into strangers. Instead, they build a contraption, “a conundrum”, out of wire by way of explanation. This is then replicated, on a much larger scale, by the hotel owner and his mate. This becomes the cage of the book’s title and the strangers walk into it. There is a key, but it’s apparently lost. The strangers therefore can’t get out and can’t be let out. The cage becomes their home. Food is fed to them through a small hole. They are hosed down, occasionally for cleaning, but more often for punishment.

The cage fills up with their shit. The book is full of shit. You feel, I tell Jones, that you have to wash your hands in hot water after each reading. The Strangers stink. The book stinks. You can smell the shit. Another sentence I was going to have trouble with: I’ve never read a book so full of shit. He says: “I had more! I’ve taken a few shits out of it.” It’s still full of it. “Yes. It’s still full of shit.”

Refugees outside Budapest’s Keleti station in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

The tone is cool, detached and clinically observational. He wrote it in a rage, in indignation, and he wanted it to read “almost in the language of a report, because that would make it much more believable, and you can sort of suspend judgment … It’s the sort of language Kafka was expert at. You think about The Metamorphosis and the very first sentence: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ You want to say, ‘Bullshit’, don’t you? But because it’s written in language that’s just like a report, you believe it.”

In a report on him, I learn he is “pleasingly contradictory, immensely thoughtful and rather old-fashioned”. This must be true, because I read it in the Guardian. The contradictory bit? “I’m good at that. Ha.” But “old-fashioned? Really? How can you be thoughtful and old-fashioned at the same time?”

Perhaps it means he has good manners. “Well, I like manners.” He isn’t on Facebook. Snort. “Of course not.” He writes in longhand, because if he’s writing on a screen, he’s not “listening” to his characters. Perhaps that’s the old-fashioned bit. The immensely thoughtful part speaks for itself.

He is also a terribly good novelist. I’d say he deserves to win the Man Booker, but that, I think, would be a cage he really wouldn’t want to be locked inside.

The Cage is out now. 

This article was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.