Maids

Philip Horne

  • The Slow Train to Milan by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 254 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 224 02077 3
  • Holy Pictures by Clare Boylan
    Hamish Hamilton, 201 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 241 10926 4
  • Pilgermann by Russell Hoban
    Cape, 240 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 224 02072 2
  • September Castle: A Tale of Love by Simon Raven
    Blond and Briggs, 261 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 85634 123 1
  • The Watcher by Charles Maclean
    Allen Lane, 343 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1559 5
  • The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carré
    Hodder, 433 pp, £8.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 340 32847 9

Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Slow Train to Milan and Clare Boylan’s Holy Pictures share a subject – girls growing up to a world whose language is new to them – which demands close attention to the register of words and sentences, a measure of novelty and an enactment of surprise. Many of their sentences glint with recognitions, giving back a fine pleasure out of the often painful misunderstandings and reverses they render. In their careful sense of a vanishing past, their evocation of innocences not quite departed with the loss of ignorance, the best passages of both books offer a firm, affectionate hold on formative passages of life.

On the dust-jacket of The Slow Train to Milan we are told of the author that ‘she and her exiled Venezuelan husband travelled for two years in Italy before returning to his family home in the Andes’; the book seems to be drawn from this period of travel, whereas her previous, much-praised novel was based on the time in Venezuela. Keepers of the House (1982) was narrated in the third person about Lydia and Diego; this one comes in the first person of Lisaveta, who starts the action as a schoolgirl, and tells of her marriage to the much older César and their travels in Europe with his friends Otto and Elias. The heroine recalls from Norfolk many years later the slow train of events running from her encounter with César in South London, via their driftings in and between French and Italian cities, to the boat which takes them, terminating a two-year limbo, to South America. César and his friends, political exiles ‘wanted, in varying degrees, during this time live and converse evasively, in a mysterious medium of false names, false passports, odd cheques, codes and guns. The book takes only vicarious account of the evident glamour of such an atmosphere: it is Lisaveta’s story, and the very cool Lisaveta is no ‘thriller’.

Early on in her relation to the three South American friends we find Lisaveta ‘examining their habits with the detachment of a sociologist’, and the growth of her affection for them never takes the mild chill off her sad observations – partly perhaps in tribute to the coming-on of something like the desolation conveyed by Keepers of the House, partly perhaps because the dialogue is mostly translated back into a language remote from the original Spanish or Italian. Events often repeat themselves into habits in Lisaveta’s retrospect – ‘We went from town to town so many times that it is hard to remember the first time as an isolated event’ – and many of her self-contained paragraphs note stratagems for order in the unstable behaviour of a group whose period of exile, as one of them sharply says, ‘is a waste of time’.

Lisa St Aubin de Teran is a fine writer, and her subtle prose looks best when it looks, unblinking, at the oddity of the dealings of out-manoeuvred men so courageous and ridiculous. Thus, of Elias: ‘He always dressed informally, except for his pale suede shoes which were, he said, de rigueur,’ where, cunningly, a strictly personal formality looks the same as anyone else’s informality. Or of César’s obsession with exactly the right watchstrap: ‘It often became a question of pride for a jeweller to produce the very one, to file one down, to have one made. But each time, César would take it or leave it, and toss it into a box that he kept for the purpose. They were never right.’ The indifferent phrase ‘take it or leave it’ jars back into perplexing life from its misfit with ‘and toss it’; ‘for the purpose’ mocks the illogic of the sentence and the procedure, the cross-purposes of action and attitude. The language here is twisted into a fine strain. We get a similar witty surprise from a quite law-abiding sentence in Chapter One, where Lisaveta has been trying to say goodbye to the foreigner following her. ‘When all my farewells failed, I gave up and shut the door in his face, only to find that he had his foot wedged in the frame.’ ‘And shut the door in his face’, like ‘and toss it’ above, gives the sentence a turn after the misleading ‘gave up’, a wry curl in the deadpan expression. She gives up, not resistance, just polite resistance.

Such enjoyable finesses are not infrequent in The Slow Train to Milan. Elias is arrested in Italy for a minor offence, but is sought by Interpol for great ones: his friends can thus find themselves grateful for a terrible prompt brutality. ‘The very police had punched his face to an unrecognisable pulp.’ ‘Unrecognisable’, usually a violent hyperbole, picks itself out here with delightful precision. Yet the charm and poise of a manner can become mannerism, and Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s attentiveness sometimes slips into an embarrassing self-attention, an allusive display of sophisticated intentions. A chapter starts:

Bologna, the basin of flames, secret and proud and neglected. Bologna, the hottest place in northern Europe, where the air blows up from the deserts of Africa and collects in the city. Bologna, smothered by the Apennines, and nowhere, not even along the Orinoco, are there more mosquitoes. Bologna, the only Communist town in Italy, and where the gypsies are not allowed into the city precincts ...

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