All hail, King Otto

I’d been looking for this book for a while, I just didn’t know it.

When Andrew Nicoll’s novel landed on my desk, I thought it just another story. In retrospect maybe I should have guessed from my attraction to the book’s cover, but in my defence, I try not to judge. Imagine my shock when If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead snuck up behind me and gave me a fair smack with the wacky stick. What a delightful surprise…

Andrew Nicoll’s If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead (Pan Macmillan) is Otto Witte’s hastily written memiors:

“Sitting in his caravan, drinking what is left of his coffee (dust), Otto has narrowly escaped death at the hands of allied bombs. Convinced his luck has run out and he will not see morning, he decides to record the story of his life for the poor soul who finds his body.

And what a story it is. Years earlier, when he was in either Buda or Pest, working at the circus, a newspaper article was brought to his attention. Why? Because in it was a picture of a particular Turkish prince, called to Albania to be their new king. And this prince just so happened to bear a striking resemblance to Otto…”

Presented with such an obvious opportunity, Otto does the only sensible thing – he runs away from the circus. He takes with him a camel, a cashbox and a band of strong, beautiful and mysterious friends, all of whom are loyal to the last, a worthy ‘royal’ entourage.

Otto, on his travels must undergo a transformation, from the Acrobat of Hamburg to the Kind of Albania. He uses his charm, and when that fails, his brute strength to coerce, cajole and convince his way from Budapest to Albania, and onto the Albanian throne.

Now, don’t be fooled, this is no boys-own-adventure. Claiming the Albanian crown is a serious undertaking, and it’s exactly when things get their most serious that they can also become their most bizarre:

“Arbuthnot went out and stood in the middle of the courtyard, feet together, arms spread, and he raised his long wolf jaw to the sky and he began to blow. His lips were formed in a tight O and he blew, like a silent whistle at the bring moon sky. All around the courtyard the men lining the walls did the same thing, they turned their faces up to the sky and they blew. There were dozens of men there, more than a hundred of them blowing thin blue trails of tobacco smoke at the sky, cigarettes and hookah pipes all puffing upwards and – this is the part I don’t believe – the sky darkened. The smoke rose and, as it rose, it thickened and grey clouds crept in over the rooftops and hid the sun.”

Unbenounced to Otto and his merry troupe, they were most certainly ‘sailing to murder and greed and ice-cold lust’ and so goes the rise and fall of King Otto.

Nicoll’s has created a fabulous tale, unique and colourful. It’s a fantastically funny story, whilst dark and earnest in perfect measure. The novel itself is magical, nicely reminiscent of works like Alice Through the Looking Glass, or the recent feature film Hugo. For me though, the real highlight was the fact that it reminded me of reading a novel by my favourite author, Tom Robbins. Robbins’ novels are surreal, crazy and lusty and Nicoll’s book has many of the same characteristics.

Of course, If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead is it’s own strange self, it’s wonderfully original, but at the same time it has allowed me to recapture just a little of the delight I took from reading Robbins all those years ago. That is what makes it the book I’ve been looking for, and I’m rapt.

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Tomorrow, I’ll be reviewing a Diane Chamberlain’s edge of your seat read, The Good Father (Harlequin)

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