A synopsis of Louis Armand’s BREAKFAST AT MIDNIGHT might run as follows: Its nameless narrator has returned to Prague after ten years wandering through Mexico and South America as a fugitive. Back in Prague, the narrator moves into a barge on the Vltava River and searches for his childhood lover, Regen, who ten years earlier disappeared after a series of violent events and under mysterious circumstances. He reunites with Blake, a fellow exile he’d met on his South American peregrinations and who’s turned from a drug-dealer and hustler into a photographer with the double fondness for photographing corpses and playing games with the narrator’s mind. One grey morning Blake takes him to see the body of a girl that has turned up in the local morgue. The girl looks strangely like Regen, conjuring up many ugly ghosts of the narrator’s pasts and dispatching him on a psychedelic odyssey through the Prague underworld (redubbed, after its most famous literary ghost, as “Kafkaville”). Attempting to escape his demons, the narrator encounters a Russian girl called Inessa, wise beyond years, who gives him the chance to see himself in a new light. Out of the violence, ugliness and despondency of a life lived in self-loathing and recrimination, the narrator rediscovers the possibility of things turning otherwise. The ending offers no rainbows, but the abyss no longer yawns as wide.
Though a few-hour read, there is an “epic” quality to this novel, in its compactness and unity of motifs, its symbolism, and its language. Verbal echoes and visual emblems make disturbingly repetitive appearances, such as the scene of “trees thick with fruit fly… bees swarming from the hives at the foot of the orchard, a loud buzzing… In the tree a bed sheet wound like a thick rope… a ladder rested against the trunk. On the ground beneath it… a pair of my mother’s shoes, covered in ants” – the scene of the narrator’s mother’s suicide. The never-ceasing rain holding hostage the whole of Kafkaville is a perfect match for the narrator’s quest for Regen (“rain” in German), equally endless, hopelessly inconclusive, and intangibly fluid. The last to complete this ghostly trinity is the abusive father, a butcher always at work at the abattoir, “assembling and disassembling his machines, like an angry Archimedes. Machines for cutting, grinding, pressing” – the father whose violent profession finds its grim parallel in his rape and continuous abuse of the young Regen, an unspeakable deed the son must avenge.
Billed as an “acid noir Coltrane-esque elegy to the other Prague” and described as “Mickey Spillane meets Georges Bataille on speed,” Breakfast at Midnight unsettles and evades resolutions in order to teach a valuable lesson. That the truth value of any individual or collective claim to “coming to terms with one’s past” should always be measured against the deeds of the teller, not the words of the tale. And that there is nothing inherently redeeming in absolution, nor is there anything virtuous about its pursuit since, according to one of the book’s most memorable axioms, “Every confession is a lie.”
Next thing we’re standing in the meat locker. Lights come on overhead. A row of sinks along a wall of scummed tiles that once were white. The stiff hands Blake a plain envelope then goes out. Without looking at it, Blake stuffs the envelope inside his coat. He’s a pretty picture, with his fox fur, his silver hair flaring out, stubble and red eyes and flying goggles around his neck – like some Luftwaffe pilot blitzed on pervitin.
In the middle of the room a gurney has been left out, draped with a green sheet. Blake takes out his camera and walks over to it. He waits until I’m next to him before he pulls the sheet away. It takes a few seconds to register what I’m seeing and then something inside me locks up. Bruised flesh leers pornographic – laughter, like a swarm of bees, swarming closer. I can hear the shutter of Blake’s camera clicking off one shot after another until the film runs out. Somehow that sound neutralises everything.
Behind my eyes images seethe and turn grey – my throat tightens around a scream that won’t come out – my head goes numb. Regen’s lying there, watching me. Red hair and jade eyes like an oriental fetish. A blur of stage-light on porcelain. Too naked. And then she’s gone again. Where she lay, there’s a corpse. Like a Janus figure. They might’ve been twins, but not quite. Two images reflecting one another through a gap in time.
Something happened once, ten years ago, in a place I want to forget. A memory, an image, a sickness. Old paranoias. I tell myself she’s dead, but it sounds fake, as fake as when I tell myself she’s alive, that she’ll come back, that everything can still be the way it used to be. I close my eyes and open them again slowly, forcing myself to see only what’s there. A slab of ruined meat. I can feel Blake watching me.
“It’s not her,” my voice flat.
I stare at the corpse’s mouth while I repeat it – a black hole cropped out with teeth. “It’s not her.” Matted red hair. Eyes wide open, staring straight up – grey green, the corneas filmed over. Skin pale blue. But it isn’t Regen.
There are bruises across the dead girl’s breasts, her thighs. Crudely stitched autopsy incisions divide her abdomen. Crotch stubble. Abrasions on knees, shins, forearms. Supplicant. All of her fingernails are broken. Old rope burns wind around her wrists and neck like myrtle.
“How’d you know?”
Without saying anything Blake pulls the sheet back over her. The gesture has an unnerving finality to it. I’m suddenly exhausted. The room seems much larger than it did before. There’s a vaguely disgusting smell in the air. I feel Blake’s hand on my arm and look up at him.
“Let’s go,” he says.
I look back at the crumpled green sheet – my hands, dead weights. I picture myself standing there like that. Inert. A thing.