Undertellers

Walter Nash

  • The Panda Hunt by Richard Burns
    Cape, 189 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02445 0
  • Davy Chadwick by James Buchan
    Hamish Hamilton, 145 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12115 9
  • Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris by Mavis Gallant
    Cape, 196 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02426 4
  • Black Idol by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 157 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02437 X

Along with the hearing-aid and the bifocals and other indices of personal decay goes an elderly fretfulness about staying alert in a world so teasing, so elusive, that even novels, which should plainly edify and console the senior citizen, seem to become more and more equivocal, devious, conspiratorial, riddling. ‘What’s the fellow driving at?’ mutters Tetchy. ‘Why do I need to know all this?’ ‘Why don’t they speak up?’ These are questions upon which might be founded a typology of narrative which would include the overtold and the undertold tale, the story that misleads with a profusion of detail and the one that mysatifies with laconic artfulness.

The Panda Hunt is a tale at once overtold and undertold, and hence flawed-though it is an engaging book, humorous, lyrical, with a kind of dawdling charm that comes from the blending of comedy and pathos and occasionally something deeper and darker than pathos. It has its own panda-nature – winsome and harassed and fleetingly tragic – reflected in the reader’s responses as the narrative develops. The story is this. Edmund Sin is a Chicago-born American, of Chinese parentage. We meet him first as the sad narrator, in sight of his 60th birthday, mourning the loss of a wife he has belatedly learned to love, looking back over forty years to another self, squaring accounts with the past. His starting-point is the year 1926, in Monaco, where young Edmund is fashionably adrift among the gaming wheels and the champagne. An accident brings him to the notice of Roscoe Hamilton, a big-game hunter who is planning an expedition to China to track down ‘a special kind of black and white bear’. Hamilton takes an immediate fancy to Edmund. ‘You remind me of Chingachgook’ he announces, not altogether plausibly. (Edmund comments, even less plausibly: ‘Chingachgook, the Last of the Mohicans, is actually pronounced Chicago by those in the know.’) This romantic fancy prompts Hamilton to offer Edmund a place on the expedition, as translator (though he has no word of Chinese) and guide (though he has never been to China). Edmund refuses, but later reconsiders his decision. ‘In China. I realised, I would be cured and healed.’ His disease is the leprosy of alienation, the affliction of not belonging to the white tribe into which his father has so assiduously tried to enrol him. Fathers are important in this book, though they appear no more than transiently among its personnel; one of its messages is that our fathers, love them or hate them, hold us in their bondage till they die, and even afterwards.

Edmund’s father, whom he guiltily loves, dies before the expedition begins; Roscoe’s father is drowned in a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party, an event that troubles Roscoe only for as long as he is suspected of having engineered it. His is no guilty love; the secret of his unerring marksmanship, we are later to learn, is that he always sees his father’s face in the gunsight. In Shanghai, Edmund the translator equips himself with a book called Commercial Mandarin in 32 lessons (the first chapter, entitled ‘Speak’, begins: ‘Chinese words are always monosyllable. Kung is speaked like Gung’), and tries to put on status by ordering a tailor-made, European-style silk suit, of which he is promptly stripped by muggers. The recovery of the suit – its ownership established by the pocketed presence of Commercial Mandarin in 32 Lessons – is a delicious essay in the absurd, one of several marking Edmund’s woebegone quest for an identity. ‘You’re a natural comic, you know that?’ Roscoe tells him. ‘Just about everything you do makes me laugh.’ But this is the end of the laughing, for now the expedition begins in earnest, taking the travellers up the Yangtse into Szechuan, and beyond, beyond, into the serious immensity of central China, the peaks and forests of the Tahsueh Shan, the Great Snowy Mountains, the retreat of the panda. The narrative crosses a frontier, and discovers a different vernacular of the emotions.

The closing chapters of the book are quite beautiful, with a serene, slow-breathing gravity, unfretted by the panting impulses of comedy. In their completeness, they create a novella to which the rest of the book is no more than an accessory source of information: its theme is the quest, the search for a death or a beginning or a redemption. What have Edmund and Roscoe gone into the wilderness to see? Mr Burns properly leaves the answer to his readers. When the explorers find their panda – ‘sitting on its fat butt with a piece of bamboo in its hand ... It looked like a man dressed in fur’ – Roscoe, the immaculate marksman who never fails while his father’s face is in the gunsight, fires – and misses, and walks away, disburdened, without looking back: but Edmund weeps, and why he weeps is the riddle that the reader must solve.

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