Kraken: an Anatomy
by China Miéville.
Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.
There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy).
I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.
Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words.
Words on the novel’s pages to conjure up the stuff of nightmare, words in the mouths of characters to change reality, words written on pieces of paper which have awareness. Billy (“don’t be a hero”) Harrow is the bespectacled protagonist who gets thrown into a, literally, harrowing series of crises for which he didn’t volunteer, mixed up with underground cults, unorthodox police, a transmigrating fetish spirit and, most terrifying of all, Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby are, were, the most convincingly menacing personages in the novel, Goss for his gratuitous violence and pally malevolence, Subby for his powerful vacuity (we realise that Subby probably stands not for subnormality, his outward appearance, but for substitute, his inward role).
Of the other characters, Kath Collingswood and Dane Parnell stand out, one a witchy chain-smoking constable, the other a true Londoner who gains Billy’s at first grudging and then outright respect. Everyman Billy is a little bit cardboard cut-out for me: he spends the first half of the book as the confused innocent abroad and the second half as urban guerilla, but I never have a sense of him as a scientist, the role we first see him in.
In a way, London is the hero: it is there, ever-present, the action never moves beyond the M25, the story doesn’t just inhabit the streets, it is the streets. But, other than the Museum, it’s not the tourist’s London, and apart from the occasional mention of districts or the Thames Barrier this is an anonymous, almost generic, seedy metropolis of faceless buildings and people, all functioning as a backdrop to the action leading inexorably to apocalypse. The supporting characters and even some of the main cast are expendable, ciphers in the narrative’s drive to resolution.
Is this a great novel? No, and one can argue that it was never meant to be. But it’s witty and inventive, dark and humorous at the same time, full of striking concepts and punny language (typically, magic, the mainspring of the action, is never mentioned; instead maguses and adepts ‘knack’ and magicked things are ‘knacked’); and only the characters involved take the situations they find themselves in seriously as a matter of life-and-death. It’s my first Miéville novel, and I suspect it won’t be my last.
As a postscript, I see that Kraken appears to be slang for crack cocaine, possibly because in Dutch some of the meanings of English crack can be translated as the related verb kraken. How much this is relevant to Miéville’s novel I have no idea, but perhaps its nightmarish quality, with fantasy morphing into an illusory reality, can be interpreted by reference to this etymology.