It's sobering to find as we grow older we not only accrue a collection of memories, but an awareness of the things we might have done if we'd made different life decisions. So this historic time and imagined time coexists simultaneously in our minds. We're all the more aware about what might have been when thinking about people we once knew intimately but aren't close to anymore. We recall the futures we envisioned together and how differently everyone's life turned out from how it was imagined.
The protagonist of Miles Allinson's “Fever of Animals” (who is also called Miles) has come to a difficult point in his life. Now in his early thirties: his father has died, he's abandoned his ambition to be a painter and he's separated from his longterm girlfriend Alice. He's filled with uncertainty about his future. One evening he's having dinner in an Australian restaurant when he sees a mysterious painting called Night with Horses. Something about this artwork speaks to him so profoundly: “It is a painted moment composed of many moments, of many tiny decisions. And yet through this slow accumulation, something rare has been fixed in time, like a corridor through which this secret force still pours out.” He becomes obsessed with tracking down its painter and understanding what happened to this artist's life. He learns it was created by a surrealist named Emil Bafdescu who lived his later life in obscurity before walking into a forest one day and disappearing. It's as if by solving the mystery of what happened to Bafdescu Miles can find a meaning in his wayward, uncertain life.
It's easy to relate to Miles who describes his early years and university life which were filled experimentation, high ideals and exciting discoveries. He's conscious of how his attitudes at the time consisted of a lot of posturing and judgement: “Self-righteous indignation was, in those days, my favourite emotion.” He and his friend Kas wanted to make important artworks that were informed by significant movements like surrealism, but said something important about their own time. Eventually, Kas developed a career and settled down. Miles travelled the world with his highly intelligent girlfriend Alice who helped support him while he worked on his paintings. Eventually their relationship breaks down and she marries a man named Wido in Berlin. Miles feels like he alone is holding onto the ideals he and these people shared.
Bafdescu is a fictional artist, but the author convincingly creates a story of how he was heavily involved in the European Surrealist movement from the 40s till the 60s. Allinson writes Bafdescu into the history of real artists like Ghérasim Luca. The character of Miles spends his time travelling around Europe piecing together the scant amount of information that still exists about Bafdescu and writing speculatively about what happened to the painter. Meanwhile he recalls incidents from his past and sets out to find Alice who has stopped responding to his messages.
There's a charming indignation about Miles who feels that people shouldn't give up on their ideals, yet he also has the humility to know that compromise doesn't necessarily equate to betraying what you believe. He looks back upon the way an artistic movement fizzled out because of war, political shifts and changes in the personal lives of its progenitors: “Surrealism had run its course. You have to grow up eventually, I guess. Death is real. Ordinary life is too powerful.” Through an arduous journey searching supposedly haunted forests and cities where he doesn't speak the language, Miles tries to unlock the mystery of what happened to Bafdescu but really yearns to understand what happened to his idea of himself. In doing so, Miles Allinson says something special in this novel about time, self-perception and art's ability to connect the present and past.