There is no doubt that Michael Frayn is a funny guy. Very funny. His play Noises Off, which was recently revived in London’s West End, is one of the funniest comedies around. A truly laugh-till-your-sides-ache experience.
The plot of his latest book, Skios, is relatively straightforward and hinges on that mother-lode of farce, mistaken identity.
Dr Norman Wilfred, a distinguished albeit rather obscure professor, is the keynote speaker at the annual conference of an exclusive pseudo-intellectual foundation on an isolated Greek Island. As the rich and important guests soak up the high life, Dr Wilfred is flying in protectively clutching his oft-presented speech, Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics
Also on the plane is charming dilettante Oliver Fox with his “dish-mop of hair as blond as blanched almonds” heading for a week of sybaritic pleasure at a friend’s villa with a girl he has only just met.
At the airport is Nikki, ambitious PA to the foundation’s female boss and the conference organiser, clutching her welcome sign, waiting to greet her prize presenter.
“Dr Wilfred?” says Nikki, as a figure approaches her. “I cannot tell a lie,” says Oliver. And the rest is Skios.
Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that it involves lost suitcases, taxi chases, unintentional sexual encounters, international powerplays, an on-going riff of things literally getting lost in translation and at the end, an explosive denouement with a surprisingly high body count. On the way there are lots of laughs (mostly internal but a few out loud).
If you want to go deep and meaningful, there is plenty of scope for debating the philosophical question of identity. Or you can just take it as a highly entertaining romp.
Over the years, Frayn has written across a wide spectrum from farce like Noises Off and Skios to serious novels like Copenhagen and Democracy. His book Headlong, about the apparent discovery of a long-lost masterpiece by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, was on the 1999 Booker short-list, losing out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
When it comes to its inclusion on the Man Booker long list it’s not that Skios is bad, far from it. The characterisation is a little thin but overall it’s very clever and great fun. However, you can’t help get the feeling that Frayn is being rewarded for a body of work, not one book. If it gets on the short list I’ll eat my baklava bonnet
But I’ll be there when the movie opens, as it inevitably will.
Skios by Michael Frayn, is published by faber and faber