Book Review: The Cormorant’s Call by Donald S Murray

By on September 30, 2022 0

By midlife, Donald S Murray became not only an established novelist, but unquestionably one of the most interesting and enjoyable authors in Scotland today. Impressive, he sets himself a new and more demanding challenge with each book. The Call of the Cormorant, set in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark and Nazi Germany, is remarkable.

It is based on the life of an extraordinary figure, Karl Einarsson, poet, artist, confidence trickster and mythomaniac who, among a number of self-attributed titles, was called Cormoran XII, Emperor of Atlantis – there a, I fear no record of the 11 former Emperor Cormorants – and also the Earl Duke of St Kilda, although he never visited the islands. But her story begins in a small town of Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, where her father ran a village store.

The father, a talkative autodidact with an avid zest for knowledge and a taste for fantasy, is, like Dickens’s Mr Micawber, a delight to meet in a novel, though you may cross the street to avoid him in life. . A voracious reader of anything that comes his way, he believes the great rock walls of the St Kilda archipelago are the last standing walls of the lost continent of Atlantis. Young Karl is brought up in this belief, his enthusiasm sparked by an encounter with two Scottish fishermen stranded on the Faroe Islands during a powerful storm. The conversations between them and Karl’s father, with neither side understanding the other well, are great fun, as are the interventions from the local pastor. Later, when Karl is a teenager, it is the pastor who persuades the father that the boy’s exceptional promise as a poet and artist will be snuffed out unless he continues his education in Denmark. The father is convinced, although his mother and Karl’s sensible sister Christianna, who shares the burden of the story, are more skeptical.

Donald S Murray PIC: Sandie Maciver

It seems natural that after a few turbulent years in Denmark – artistic success tainted by his dishonesty – Karl finds himself in Nazi Germany. He may, in his fixation on Atlantis, his claim to be able to speak his lost language (if there ever was such a language) and his belief that Atlantis was the homeland of the Aryan race, be mad to the tonsils, but he’s no more so than SS leader Heinrich Himmler, whose Aryan fantasies prompted him to send an expedition to Tibet in search of further evidence of the race’s origins. Murray revels in all this nonsense, even writing with some degree of sympathy and understanding for Emperor Cormorant. His description of the madhouse that was Nazi Germany is sharp, lively, gruesome and very funny. There is a false note when he has Himmler shoot a bird or an animal. In fact, the man who sent millions of Jews, gypsies and gays to death camps was a crazed, proto-green vegetarian who believed blood sports were bad.

When war breaks out, Karl is recruited to broadcast on German radio in the Faroes, joining a bizarre gang that included William Joyce (Lord Haw-haw), Irish novelist Francis Stuart, and at least a few Scottish nationalists. To his credit, Emperor Cormoran does so reluctantly, especially since he has seen enough Nazi and Allied bombing of Germany to believe that Germany will be defeated. His assertion that the broadcasts were harmless since he broadcast them in the otherwise lost language of Atlantis is more ingenious than convincing.

It’s a beautiful story, rich in irony, a story of madness and imbecile that nevertheless invites sympathy. It is neatly and wisely offset by the voice of Karl’s sensitive and caring sister. The construction is good. I might have liked the father of the Cormorant more, but I suspect Murray could have thought of that self-indulgence. It is his most ambitious novel to date, if only because he stepped out of his home territory. It leaves one wondering what he can – and will – do next.

The call of the cormorant, Donald S Murray, Sarabande, 278pp, £9.99

The Cormorant’s Call by Donald S Murray