Doomed

Graham Hough

  • Ah, but your land is beautiful by Alan Paton
    Cape, 270 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 02 241981 0
  • A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
    Secker, 402 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 436 49681 X
  • Something Else by Virginia Fassnidge
    Constable, 152 pp, £5.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 09 464340 7
  • The Air We Breathe by Gabriel Josipovici
    Harvester, 114 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 7108 0056 8

It is a curious thing that while so many critics are busy telling each other that literature is a linguistic game, that novels are purely formal structures and that their pretensions to represent the world are illusory, novelists continue to write what in any serious sense must be considered historical novels. By a historical novel I mean, not period romance, but a fiction that is tied by close and numerous links to a real place at a real time, its essence being to tell a truth about an independently verifiable world, outside the realm of fiction. One of the most famous of these came out in 1948: it was Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country, so intimately bound up with South African history that Paton had to write a preface to distinguish those parts which are formally fiction. ‘As a social record,’ he concluded, ‘it is the plain and simple truth.’ Of course it is not merely a social record: it is the deeply imagined story of an individual life. And Paton has had to devise a language to tell the story in, for the simple Zulu parson who is the protagonist does not deal in the current coin of modern English speech. So that the literary question was as demanding as the historical one; the political act cannot be separated from the work of art. Now, after thirty years, comes Ah, but your land is beautiful, with similar themes and settings, the date of the action a few years later, the conflicts more distinctly those of the modern world. And though the continuity with Paton’s earlier work is complete, this is a different kind of book. Cry, the beloved country is an exploration both of the racial problem and of personal suffering; and its quasi-Biblical language is a means of penetrating into a sorrowful and bewildered consciousness. Ah, but your land is beautiful is a panorama, a chronicle, with a wide variety of characters and the interest distributed between them. It is a less lyrical and more political book, in part an evident roman-à-clef. The period is the 1950s, the time of the Passive Resistance campaign, the Sophiatown removals, the emergence of the South African Liberal Party and the early stages of the Nationalist government.

The story unrolls in a series of short episodes, each centred on a single character and the characters covering a wide spectrum of South African life. An Indian girl sits in a ‘No Blacks’ library and is arrested; a white school official becomes prominent in the Liberal Party; his life is threatened and shots are fired at his house; black farmers in white areas are evicted, their land taken and their houses destroyed; a ‘Proud White Christian Woman’ writes obscene letters to her political opponents; and an ironic chorus is provided by the correspondence of a petty Afrikaans civil servant, solemnly saluting the progress of apartheid and the triumph of the Nationalist cause. Paton’s earlier writing is suffused with a plangent emotion. This is a drier and more objective book, with more variety of tone and manner. Each of the characters has his own style, and the imaginative equitableness we have come to associate with Paton is achieved by presenting each pretty much in his own terms. There is no distinct plot and no defined conclusion – partly because this is to be the first volume of a trilogy, partly because there is no conclusion to be seen. The standpoint is that of the Liberals the party that rejects the possibility of any partisan triumph and looks for the submergence of racial interests in a common justice. But little hope is offered that any of this will succeed, and in the last pages the white Liberal leader quits the country, and is not blamed for it.

It is not an advantage to a novelist to be the champion of a cause that has rightly become a world-wide challenge. Paton’s humanity, generosity and wisdom are apparent in everything he writes – and in the candour with which he reveals the complex social and racial alignments. But in the end all the right is on one side and all the wrong on the other, as probably it is. This is not the first instance we have seen in modern history. It may be that the political options are so inexorably black and white that the right public choice seems to subsume all the private virtues. But such a vision excludes the accidents, the mixture of motives, the inherited irrationalities that are the normal substance of daily life, and are not abolished by the great existential decisions. The modern imagination thrives on these ambiguities, and a novel where they are absent, even for the best of reasons, stands aside from the general course of imaginative fiction. It is probably meant to do so.

Robert Stone is also engaged with political disaster. His earlier novel Dog Soldiers was about the legacy of corruption left to America by the Vietnam War. In A Flag for Sunrise the theme is American incursion into the Third World. The scene is the small corrupt Central American republic of Tecan – fictional in name but in little else. At first we appear to be in Greeneland: at a derelict mission station on the Caribbean coast there is a drunken priest, a nun who has lost her faith, a sadistic police lieutenant. But this is only the focal point on which a number of narrative lines converge. Tecan is sunk in poverty, tyranny and oppression, and is on the verge of a violent revolution. It is therefore the object of much corrective attention from the US and the structure of the book is furnished by the motives and methods of the various North Americans who fetch up there. In spite of superficial similarities, it is a blacker world than Graham Greene’s. Greene’s sombre chiaroscuro has its passages of chiaro among the obscurity: here there are virtually none – the one redemptory gleam being the fatal and useless gallantry of the young nun. But we are not assisting at a moral drama: it is something more like a dance of death.

The country is swarming with professional revolutionaries, gun-runners, secret agents, double agents, dubious journalists and vagabond juvenile drop-outs. But it is too late in the day for tourisme révolutionnaire. There is no dwelling on horrors, but when they occur, as in the startling opening, they are not spared. This is a long book and a very dense one; it does not rely on suggestion and a menace that is merely atmospheric; it is full of hard, knowing physical detail, and has all the pace and grip of the high-class modern thriller. Yet no one could read it as a thriller. It is heavy with a sense of doomed history that connects it with Dog Soldiers, for the leading figures have been involved in previous American adventures overseas, and describe themselves as Vietnam burn-outs. Most of the characters are drunk or drugged most of the time, and it is generally assumed that this is the normal state. The mercenary and the psychopathic go through their murderous and compulsive antics; the honest and the half-honest have not the slightest faith in what they are doing, or even any knowledge of what imperatives they obey. The least damaged is the professional soldier, who can hang on to the decencies and discipline of his trade. In a descending scale of squalor are the employees, half-hearted recruits of the intelligence agency, and, at the bottom, the academic cajoled or blackmailed into collaboration.

This is a picture of cynicism and betrayal, and an immensely powerful one: but it is not a cynical picture. Callousness and treachery are everywhere, but there is no pretence that they are other than callousness and treachery. No comfort to those brought up on Kim and Richard Hannay, who are accustomed to think that our side are all good chaps. But of course this is a work of fiction, no less than the stories of Kim and Richard Hannay: it is an anti-Kipling, an anti-Buchan fable. No doubt it is by a happy stroke of fantasy that it bears such a marked resemblance to some of the glimpses of American foreign policy that we get from the newspapers. We are in the realm of linguistic games, and no doubt the parallel operations in the real world are conducted in a different manner, by a different sort of people.

Virginia Fassnidge explores an odd, unstereotyped, three-cornered relationship that comes to a bad end. Amanda’s life is left desolate by the death of her father, a minor public figure. Gerald, the proprietor of a rather seedy junk-shop, has reason to believe that Amanda’s father was also his father. He decides to strike up an acquaintance with her, at first out of vague self-interest: but it soon develops into a genuine emotional tie, which also includes Denny, Gerald’s friend and partner, who becomes obsessed with the girl, and she with him, in a more uncomplicated fashion. Neither of the men knows how much the other sees of Amanda. Concealments, secrecy, jealousy, complicate their lives. It is all untidy, uncomfortable, feckless and extremely real, an unhappy muddle that nobody has willed. It is the sort of story you might hear at second hand or read in the newspapers, but expanded and enriched by sympathy and psychological insight. The characters are sharply individual and the dialogue is authentic vernacular, accurate to the type and to the minute. Especially to be commended is the striking originality of showing (a) a strong bond between two young men that is not homosexual, and (b) a strong attraction between a young man and a young woman that is not sexual at all. Virginia Fassnidge has an unconventional penetration into character and motive and a cool certainty of technique that might well be applied to a larger and more resonant subject.

Gabriel Josipovici is prominent among those who are anxious to free the novel from any hampering subservience to the outer world. He has been praised for ‘the concentration he has brought to bear on the form of the novel and the important question of what the novel actually does’. The result seems to be a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome. In his earlier novel Migrations a man walks down a deserted street in South London. A man paces up and down an empty room. Is it the same man? Who is he? Why is he there? Readers of the French novel of 25 years ago will recognise the symptoms – enigmas which never become compelling because they do not arise out of the material but are just put in to make it harder. In The Air We Breathe they take the form of chronic pronoun trouble. The characters have no names – they are just he or she, and as there are four possible antecedents for ‘he’ and two for ‘she’, it is always a worry to know who is being talked about. Also to know where we are. We flit confusingly and often in the same paragraph between a hotel bedroom, a car, a house in the country with a spitting fire, and a train. Perhaps with the idea of making things clearer everything is said at least twice: ‘She wanted to talk to him, to explain to him’; ‘she felt full of holes, full of spaces, gaps’; ‘This is life, this is what life is, what it does to you.’ The constant repetition clogs the texture, and in such a short book it means there is too much medium for the message. In the end of course we get it all sorted out: it is the story of an English woman who as a child has spent two summer holidays in a house in France. Twenty years later when she has become a graduate student she meets the son of the house in the Rue des Ecoles, and for no particular reason, precipitately marries him. Later she comes to regret this, and leaves. There are many convolutions in the unfolding of the narrative, and some additional arabesques in the background: but I cannot honestly see that these devices enrich the reader’s apprehension, or explore the possibilities of narration.