- Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess
Hutchinson, 339 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 09 173842 3
- The Ragged End by John Spurling
Weidenfeld, 313 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 297 79505 8
- Higher Ground by Caryl Phillips
Viking, 224 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 670 82620 0
- The Flint Bed by Christopher Burns
Secker, 185 pp, £10.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 436 09788 5
- Stark by Ben Elton
Joseph, 453 pp, £13.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7181 3302 1
The transition from mixture to emulsion in fiction (or in mayonnaise) is magical. The process is delicate. When fiction curdles, and globules of pure fact rise to the surface, the dishomogeneity annoys. Some reviewers of Anthony Burgess’s new novel say it has curdled: ‘so let’s say he does know all Walton’s percussion parts by heart, and has the Hebrew or the Russian word for almost anything, is he able to use them to tell a better story?’ I think he is. In Any Old Iron facts and characters stick together well enough for larger themes to develop through them. Burgess’s densely referential style helps this to happen rather in the way a realistic set suits some plays. You do not believe there is an actual town beyond the proscenium but it serves to remind you how complicated a real town is. And the complication has its inherent charm – words and percussion-playing are, after all, interesting in their own right.
The plot sometimes creaks, though no more loudly than John Spurling’s The Ragged End or Ben Elton’s eco-farce Stark. These books try for the global range and include by reference and implication huge volumes of contemporary history. Stories which bring in two world wars or the coming eco-crisis or the sunset of Empire must break unities of space or time. The impulse to attempt them is easy to understand. A few square inches of ivory are too small to encompass the lot of the dead Lebanese and starving Africans who press nightly on the television screen, but telling stories about the global village leads to problems of figure and ground: how to combine the domestic scale with the broad view. Even Christopher Burns’s The Flint Bed, which looks to be going to find its subject in English provincial life, expands (via a plot tied to a photograph from 1975 of desperate refugees fighting to get onto a helicopter lifting off from the American Embassy in Saigon) to include a sense of the wider world and its troubles in its hero’s search for self-knowledge.
Burgess begins with a little metallurgy and quite a lot of history and mythology. A sword, Excalibur perhaps, links up the parts of the novel and is symbolic in its action. A Welshman, David Jones, runs away to sea, survives the sinking of the Titanic, becomes a cook in New York, marries Ludmilla, the daughter of his Russian employer, returns to Wales and the First World War. He is in Ireland during the Rebellion and, because he is posted as dead, his wife goes to Russia and takes in the Revolution. The story is told in language which mimics the rise and fall of a Welsh accent in one place, the word-order of a direct translation from the Russian in another. Where it tells what happened in no voice but the storyteller’s it is thick (over-thick for some) with names and places.
The children of David and Ludmilla, Reginald (Reg), Beatrix (Trixie) and Dan, and the Jewish narrator and his sister Ziphora (Zip, the percussionist who marries Reg), allow the family experience to encompass the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War – as soldier, prisoner or diplomat – terrorism and nationalism in Israel and in Wales. Dan is taken prisoner by the Germans. It is while he is trying to make his way back from the camp that he sees the sword – a relic stolen from Monte Casino. This German loot becomes Russian loot and eventually Welsh loot. One of the good things about the novel is the knockabout which usually accompanies a reappearance of the Relic in the story – like the golden goose in the fairy-tale, it can make those who grab it absurd.