Published 23 June 2021
French paperback with flaps, 104 pages
Lake Batlava is beautiful. Deep, not exactly welcoming. I don’t expect the locals think it’s much like Loch Ness, but we did. I did. No legends about monsters, none that I heard of. But how would I get to hear about them anyway? I’d have to speak the language, and the Barry brain doesn’t do languages. Just doesn’t want to know. ‘Gut und Morgen’ is about as much as I can manage in foreign parts, doesn’t get you far in Kosovo. Plus we weren’t there as sightseers, though we saw some sights. We saw some sights.
Batlava Lake isn’t just a beauty spot, civic resource into the bargain. Natural lake but improved. Enhanced. Serves as the main reservoir for a capital city, for Pristina. More than Loch Ness can say for itself, monster or not!
When I first heard the name, like everyone else did, I thought it was the same as the cakey thing. The sticky layers – Greek, is it? Likely Greek. Bit sweet for me, wherever it comes from. Baklava. When I learned the proper name I used it, Batlava, though not everybody did. They stuck with what they knew, came in handy making silly jokes. Jokes about the Baklava Lake being fed by the River Ouzo. And so on – nearly funny. Not quite.
Even if I bust a gut laughing at their jokes wouldn’t make me one of the lads. They were signed-up military and I was only ‘attached’. But still. I had the rank of full colonel, and they were required to salute me. Even if there were no witnesses about, the hand had to go smartly up, recognition of rank. The only snag – my hand had to stay by my side. Couldn’t salute back. Wasn’t allowed to.
Really knocked me off my stride first time it happened. My hand wobbled upwards of its own accord. That’s how it works in films. Never a saluter who doesn’t get saluted. Like when someone throws a ball at you, your hand goes up to catch it even if you weren’t expecting the bloody thing to come your way, isn’t that right? Your body decides and your hand goes up all by itself. How are you supposed to acknowledge a salute when you’re not allowed to return it? You can’t say ‘Much obliged, I’m sure.’ You can’t say ‘Thanks very much mate, appreciate it.’ All you can do is behave as if nothing has happened, grow a shell. Gradually turn into the sort of plonker who expects to be acknowledged without giving anything back.
That first time I called on all my reserves, all my resistance, and went all Barry-be-strong. I sent my hand back down again, though it didn’t feel right to be dropping the ball. As if I was breaking the rules, though in fact, being technical about it, I was obeying them. I noticed something, though, funny thing. There was a look in the ranker’s eyes when I was starting to salute back, by that instinct I’m talking about, not being able to stop myself. You’d have to call it a smirk – at how stupid I was being. If I took the bait and showed respect for him, I was a wally plain and simple. If I played by the rules and behaved as if he wasn’t there then, obviously, I was treating him like shit and I was a shit myself.
So when I managed to stop myself saluting before I was committed to the wally option, there was another look in his eyes. Different, but still pissed off. Pissed off in a new way, giving me a sort of dull glare, resentful glare. I didn’t much like either of the looks that could come my way, to be honest, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I was trapped in the not-saluting side of things, and the lads were trapped in the saluting. None of us happy about it. After a while it seemed to me that when the ranks saluted me, their lips moved, and they mouthed a word, always the same word. I couldn’t say for sure what the word was, but squit would be a strong candidate.
Pristina, Kosovo, 1999. Barry Ashton, recently divorced, has been deployed as a civil engineer attached to the Royal Engineers corps in the British Army. In an extraordinary feat of ventriloquism, Adam Mars-Jones constructs a literary story with a thoroughly unliterary narrator, and a narrative that is anything but comic through the medium of a character who, essentially, is. Exploring masculinity, class and identity, Batlava Lake is a brilliant story of men and war by one of Britain’s most accomplished writers.
‘No one inhabits character as intensely and subtly as Mars-Jones. Batlava Lake is therefore completely convincing as an everyman narrative – we know people exactly like Barry Ashton, and may even be exactly like him – but there’s a larger truth here too, about clashes of cultures and history, that make this an important and highly recommended book.’
— Lee Child
Praise for Box Hill
‘I very much enjoyed Box Hill. It is a characteristic Mars-Jones mixture of the shocking, the endearing, the funny and the sad, with an unforgettable narrator. The sociological detail is as ever acutely entertaining.’
— Margaret Drabble
‘A tender exploration of the love that truly dare not speak its name – that between master and slave. On his eighteenth birthday, Colin literally stumbles upon a strapping biker twice his age, and falls into a long-term relationship characterised by devotion, mystery, and submission. In plain unadorned prose, Mars-Jones shows us the tender, everyday nature of this. Self-deprecating, sad, and wise.’
— Fiona McGregor
‘Box Hill is not a novel for the prudish, but it is a masterclass in authorial control. ... Despite its diminutive length, it is rich with detail and complexity, and has plenty to demonstrate Mars-Jones’s well-deserved place on any list of our best.’
— Alex Nurnberg, Sunday Times
‘An exquisitely discomfiting tale of a submissive same-sex relationship ... perfectly realized.’
— Anthony Cummins, Observer
Adam Mars-Jones’ first collection of stories, Lantern Lecture, won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1982, and he appeared on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists lists in 1983 and 1993. His debut novel, The Waters of Thirst, was published in 1993 by Faber & Faber. It was followed by Pilcrow (2008) and Cedilla (2011), which form the first two parts of a semiinfinite novel series. His essay Noriko Smiling (Notting Hill Editions, 2011) is a book-length study of a classic of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring. His memoir Kid Gloves was published by Particular Books in 2015. He writes book reviews for the LRB and film reviews for the TLS.