The Invisible Mile by David Coventry (Victoria University Press, 2015), 319 pp., $30
As with any novel, we check the jacket notes and ascertain the framework of the plot. Back in 1928, a team of Australian and NZ cyclists became the first English-speaking riders to participate in the Tour de France. The tour riders for that year had to cover 5476 kilometres of unsealed roads on fixed-wheel bikes with questionable brakes and no lights for the long stretches ridden in the pre-dawn darkness. Checking with Wikipedia, we find the race’s course circled France counterclockwise from Paris in 22 daily stages ridden at an average speed of 28.4 kmh, and the winner was Nicolas Frantz.
David Coventry has taken the actual antipodean participants and added a fifth rider as his narrator. Somewhere down the track we will learn his name. By then we will know him intimately. We see the story through his eyes and share his emotions and reactions to events as the stages of the marathon ordeal are slowly and painfully completed. The Prologue introduces the three members of our narrator’s immediate family who will be drifting in and out of his thoughts while the Tour progresses. It also introduces the author’s finely honed writing style. For a first published work it impresses from the start. The initial impression is one of spare simplicity, but we find ourselves seeing and feeling, with a total clarity that should logically have taken far longer to communicate. Events occur, leaving us with questions that will be answered much later as pieces of a complex jigsaw slowly come together. The Prologue’s final sentence is a glimpse of the writing that awaits us: ‘But Marya and I we heard nothing, nothing but the throttling run of the river as it slowly made mountains into rocks and rocks into sand.’
And so to the beginning of the Tour itself, conveyed with compelling immediacy. This writer’s skill is such that we’re irresistibly drawn in. We feel the tension as we find ourselves standing balanced on the Paris cobblestones, waiting for our start signal to join the other teams being released at ten-minute intervals. Never before have we felt the gaze of fifty thousand foreign faces. How will we know when our turn arrives? Memories revisit training runs, and recall the learning of new techniques to maximise the benefit of newly supplied bikes that replace the outdated machines we brought over; the long hours of getting them into competitive shape. We are taken back to an age before television, before colour film images, when even radio was an exciting novelty. Nowhere is there anything that looks or reads like an explanation, but somehow we just know.
The narrative is anything but a blow-by-blow account of the race itself. We skip in and out of the narrator’s thoughts. Cityscape gives way to countryside. With the staggered start format, there is no massed peleton, but as the day wears on, other team riders are overtaken or overtake us with shouted exchanges which few of the recipients comprehend. The first day ends with the usual post-mortem discussions and dissection of the other team tactics.
With no preamble or introduction, we are looking out of the hotel room window of a woman who had recognised the narrator and called him by name earlier in the evening. Their time together is brief and undefined. From their conversation and his subsequent musings, we learn more of our narrator’s past and family. She is following the Tour and will reappear in a slowly morphing role as more is gradually revealed. Likewise a little more of our narrator is revealed as the mystery woman drives off with undescribed, undefined strangers: ‘The woman passes a look my way from the window as they go by, and hints at something. I nod with the shy eagerness of an uncourted man.’
Day by day, we are drawn further into the competitors’ world:
Concentration, stamina, cold, trust, rain, belief, wind, endurance, pain, skin, heat, urine, blood, scabbing, stench, faith, filth, food, water, wine, blister, drug. The undoing of men is this repetition; the everyday agonies we can take; it’s the boredom that kills us off one by one.
The poorly-formed gravel roads of the countryside and the cobblestones of the towns speak of an era when the motorcar was still a novelty. Fully tarsealed highways were not commonplace in Europe and elsewhere until the thirties. For cyclists the stone-embedded surfaces are harsh and unforgiving, with frequent falls and no first-aid backup – just blood, pain and stoic endurance. Antibiotics are unavailable – they will not be invented for decades – adding the risk of fatal infections to the pain of their injuries. There are no furtive drug cheats here. Cocaine, synephrine, opium and other drugs are openly consumed as a simple matter of course. Riders think nothing of consuming wine and spirits as they ride and as they relax afterwards.
Physical violence goes unchallenged – whether it is fistfights between participants, deliberate shoving on the course, or worse. The field shrinks slowly, as other team riders succumb to the strain. Our team members are no longer anonymous as newspapers and radio focus on these foreigners from the other side of the globe, and crowds call our names as we ride by. Entering a cathedral our narrator is overcome by the unaccustomed sense of history – measured in centuries rather than the decades of his New Zealand home. The mystery woman reappears and within hours they are gazing at a field of menhirs: ghostly remnants of unrecorded history from thousands of years ago. From their conversations we learn, bit by bit, more of the main character’s sister and brother. Bright glowing images slowly tarnish as darker revelations surface. Painful memories are lifted from suppression. Guilt and tragedy intertwine with redemption.
Day by day the ordeal grinds on. Plains and gentle hills are left behind as the riders tackle the mountain stages. The mandatory fixed-wheel bikes must be fitted the night before with carefully selected sprocket ratios for the climbs and descents. Gear changes can only be effected by stopping, removing and reversing the rear wheel, while the fixed sprockets rule out any freewheeling rest on the descents. Bikes must be carried through streams, lest the fragile wooden wheel rims be damaged on hidden rocks. Constantly recurring punctures stretch tempers to breaking point, but dropping out is equated with death, and so they ride on. Time stretches and warps as ghosts and memories invade thoughts, fleshing out the endless hours on the road and the dark resting times. The Great War is still fresh in all their minds and its horrors cannot be exorcised.
The stream of consciousness style of writing is almost hypnotic as it compels you to share in the narrator’s ongoing struggle and to witness the slow unveiling of his past life. I’m not bold enough to describe it as unique, lest some more widely read critic names some obscure forerunner. I will instead recommend it as a brilliant tour de force of writing talent and style that richly rewards the reader. I leave it to you to decide whether or not this debut effort immediately places David Coventry among the elite of New Zealand authors.
BRIAN CLEARKIN is a writer and reviewer who lives on the Coromandel.