Carrying on with a foreign woman

John Sutherland

  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
    Cape, 269 pp, £9.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 224 02847 2
  • A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 315 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 340 38449 2
  • A Storm from Paradise by Stuart Hood
    Carcanet, 188 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 85635 582 8
  • Samarkand by John Murray
    Aidan Ellis, 255 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 85628 151 4
  • The Sicilian by Mario Puzo
    Bantam, 410 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 593 01001 9
  • Putting the boot in by Dan Kavanagh
    Cape, 192 pp, £8.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 224 02332 2

Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel finds him on old ground. All his hallmarks are prominently here: the cute narrative manner belying an apocalyptic message (the end of the world is once again nigh); the little ‘so it goes’ tics of style (here an asterisk placed before the names of characters about to die); comic-scientific periphrasis (marriage is ‘biologically significant copulation’). It’s as if, having labelled himself a boring old fart, as he did in the prologue to Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut has now decided to play the part for all it’s worth. Fortunately, the old fart’s bag of tricks still amuses. But I think I would have liked this novel more had it been the first of the author’s that I’d read.

The narrator of Galapagos is Leon Trotsky Trout, son of our old friend Kilgore, the SF writer who has wonderful ideas for novels but can’t write worth a damn. (I’ve seen it said that Trout is based on Theodore Sturgeon; the fishy joke is nice, but it seems more likely to me that Vonnegut jokes at his own roots in hack Science Fiction.) Leon has odd narrative qualifications. His mind, like Billy Pilgrim’s in Slaughterhouse-Five, has been damaged beyond repair by war. Leon volunteered for the US Marines, fought in Vietnam, took part in a My Lai-type operation in which 59 villagers were killed, deserted to Sweden, became a ship-worker, was decapitated by a falling sheet of metal (lost his big brain, as the novel would put it), became a ghost haunting the boat which is to be mankind’s second ark, and now – a million years from next November – is writing the last story ‘on air’. Hi ho.

Boiled down, Trout Jr’s Genesis II goes like this. In 1986, mankind is extinguished by world-wide economic collapse, war and epidemic sterility. The only survivors are a random handful aboard a luxury liner off Ecuador. These comprise a megalomaniac German captain (the new Noah), six female Kanka-bono Indians, a confidence man, an elderly widowed biology teacher, an industrial tycoon’s blind daughter, a Japanese computer genius and his pregnant wife whose mutant offspring – thanks to Hiroshima – is covered with fine fur. They have with them the entire store of human knowledge packed into a miniature computer, Mandarax. And much good it does them.

By a series of accidents, this motleyest of crews is marooned on the Galapagos, where Darwin made his conclusive observations about natural selection. The biology teacher digitally transfers the captain’s semen from her uterus to the Indian girls’ wombs. The resulting offspring mate with the furry Japanese, and humankind is launched on a new genetic route. Like the flightless cormorant which in the Galapagos exchanged wings for fins, humanity surrenders its ‘big brain’, the better to catch fish. And, over the million years covered by the novel, our species evolves into a furry, unintelligent, finned amphibian:

It was the best fisherfolk who survived in the greatest numbers in the watery environment of the Galapagos Archipelago. Those with hands and feet most like flippers were the best swimmers. Prognathous jaws were better at catching and holding fish than hands could ever be. And any fisherperson, spending more and more time underwater, could surely catch more fish if he or she were more streamlined, more bulletlike – had a smaller skull.

Galapagos has two premises. One is that though we won’t admit it, we are living in World War Three; the other that mankind’s great enemy is his ‘big brain’. According to Vonnegut, this organ – as absurdly overdeveloped as the elk’s antlers – is ‘simply no damn good’. As Trout wryly explains,

I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example: It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.

  Thanks a lot, big brain.

In conversation about his novel, Vonnegut has asked: ‘what’s so great about being smart?’ It’s an oddly Christian message that one finally gets from Galapagos. Except ye become as lobotomised sea lions, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Some chance, Vonnegut.

At the heart of Galapagos is an exhausted misanthropy trying unsuccessfully to change its mind. In its present state, Vonnegut does not seem much to like the human race. But he hasn’t quite reached the Swiftian point of no return. There is an interesting exchange between Kilgore and Leon Trout, in which author/father tells the author/son to give up on ‘these animals’ and join him in the great blue yonder. ‘The more you learn about people, the more disgusted you’ll become,’ he tells Leon. But Leon stays on, sustained by his mother’s favourite quotation (which stands as the novel’s epigraph): Anne Frank’s ‘In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.’ But, of course, Anne wrote that before the Germans got her.

Thomas Keneally likes to run his fiction close to historical fact. An appended note to A Family Madness indicates the novel’s source: ‘In a suburb of Sydney, Australia, in July 1984, a family of five willingly ended their lives. Their consent to their own destruction had its roots in events which occurred during World War Two, in voices heard and insupportable fears endured in that era.’ Keneally’s novel uses the genre’s inventive licence to explore an event which the newspapers left as the week’s inexplicable horror. The hero, Terry Delaney, is as straightforwardly Oz as Edna Everage. A security guard, he bumps up his earnings by playing Rugby League at the weekends. Terry is married to Gina, the daughter of an Italian couple from Palermo. When Terry loses his job, he drifts into working for a smaller security firm, oddly called ‘Uncle’, and run by a Belorussian patriarch, Rudi Kabbel, and his two sons. Delaney falls in love with Kabbel’s daughter, Danielle, and she has a child by him.

A familiar novel of adultery could ensue from this mess. But Keneally’s design is more ambitious. The narrative moves along three main tracks. There is Terry’s match diary, recording his increasing ferocity (and success) on the playing field, as his involvement with the Kabbels deepens. Running alongside it are Rudi Kabbel’s reminiscences of his childhood in wartime Minsk and his father Stanislaw’s journal from the same period. Kabbel senior emerges as a romantic Belorussian patriot, collaborating with the occupying German SS (commanded by ‘Uncle’ Willi Ganz) so as to further the long-term aim of national independence. The nationalistic dream finally disintegrates in a post-war DP camp, where Stanislaw is forced to witness his wife’s execution, and young Rudi is imprisoned in a hole in the ground – a horror from which he never recovers. The surviving Kabbels emigrate to Australia. Essentially stateless, they fill the political emptiness of their lives with apocalyptic mysticism. Convinced that a purifying ‘wave’ is coming, they prepare for a new deluge. When it does not come, they calmly exterminate themselves. Terry witnesses this final solution but can only respond to it by a less deliberate act of violence of his own.

As in Schindler’s Ark, Keneally has raked over World War Two for sub-plots to which the novelist can bring peculiar insight. In any balanced account of the war, the Belorussian theatre is pifflingly insignificant. (Just as Schindler’s arkful of survivors was historically meaningless against the six million murdered.) But fiction does not have to balance its sympathetic priorities. A Family Madness asserts that war robs humanity of more than life or territory. Imperial absorption, by denying survivors the comfort of national history and aspiration, leaves nothing but madness.

Given the lavish success of Schindler’s Ark, it’s understandable that Keneally should write another holocaust novel. But A Family Madness is, I think, better than its applauded predecessor. For one thing, its points strike nearer home. Keneally in this latest work projects a vision of the unfused fragmentariness of postwar Australia. An Irish hero has an Italian wife, but becomes involved with a Belorussian lover and her family. In this context, what is it to be ‘Australian’? New nationality lies on these characters as lightly as wrapping paper. And Keneally’s novel denies the cheerful a-historicism of the Australian dream, which requires that successful citizens simply forget their national and family pasts. As Kabbel tells Delaney,

In places like Sydney people try to live in an eternal and very base now, without any memory of the dead. The barbecue and the sun are all. Games are all – a game is all to you. But you have to face it: sometimes – I restate it so that you will know – sometimes even here history can’t be avoided.

The memorial element is strong in Keneally’s fiction. At its worst, it comes over as a ‘lest we forget’ preachiness. But here the nobility of the characters in the novel makes a genuine claim on the reader.

Carcanet publish A Storm from Paradise, together with a reissue of Stuart Hood’s Carlino.[*] Carlino is straight autobiography, recording the author’s experiences with the Italian Resistance during the war. A Storm from Paradise has equally strong but less direct roots in Hood’s past. The novel imaginatively reconstructs a crisis in the life of a Scottish schoolmaster (based, we are candidly told, on Stuart Hood’s father) in the period immediately before the First World War.

Hood’s title is a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. It continues: ‘this storm is what we call progress.’ Social and personal progress, the novel implies, is a hard-won thing. John Scott comes as new headmaster to Slateford, a village in Kincardineshire. There he is involved with two women. One is a local girl, May, the mill-owner’s daughter. She is trained in the domestic virtues and will, as she promises, make John a ‘good wife’. The other woman is a cosmopolitan Russian, Elizavyeta. ‘Cultured, widely read in three languages, without religion,’ she has heard Freud lecture in Vienna and consorts with revolutionaries. She will not make John a good wife, but she promises that she can help him break free. ‘Carrying on with a foreign woman’ has its predictable consequences. Scott is reprimanded by the school governors. ‘You must get rid of your puritanism – before it destroys you,’ Elizavyeta tells him. The lovers have an idyllic Easter in London. Accident, and a failure of nerve, lead to Scott’s remaining a village schoolmaster, finally unable to break free from the role into which history has cast him. He marries May and fathers the author of the book. Scottish Puritanism is victorious, at least for one generation more.

A Storm from Paradise has little in the way of pace or plot. What Hood offers is a series of densely remembered or imaginatively reconstructed scenes from early childhood, strung on a theoretical meditation about the nature of the past and our relationship to it. John Scott, the narrator tells us, ‘is and is not my father just as “I” am I and not I’. What follows in explanation of this multiplicity is very knotty, and suggests that Hood inherited something of the dominie from the he who was his father.

By contrast, the physical recall of Slateford, its surroundings, its population, its church and school, is beautifully direct and effective. Hood has an enviably detailed memory. But he does not confuse remembering with recovery. The value of the past is that it can be known and understood. To expect more is romantic. After a magnificent description of the wool mill on Slateford’s East Water as it was in his childhood, the narrator adds: ‘When I last went that way fifteen years or so ago the house and the mill were gone and the trees in the orchard had been cleared. I had intended to walk past the mill to see whether there was still a bank where the primroses and violets came early every spring. But it started to rain and I turned back to my hotel.’ Passages such as these express a poignant truth. Hood chose, as his father did not, to make the break, to turn his back on the primrose bank. For a Marxist like him, paradise must be made in the future and outside world. And yet the lingering figure of the wet old man, going to a rented room in the place where he was born, communicates a painful sense of paradise lost, somewhere just beyond reach in his childhood.

John Murray in Samarkand sets himself some of the same tasks as Hood. The novel evokes village life in Cumbria in the Fifties. Again, the work is rich with precisely recalled detail, such as Sunday lunches to the accompaniment of Two-Way Family Favourites, ‘a jumble of lonely BFPOs relaying to Jean Metcalfe how much they missed their women, pets and mums and dear old dads’. The focus of Samarkand is diffused over a whole working-class family, all struggling for vaguely-sensed fulfilments. The community is dying, as the pits close. But enough remains to satisfy most of the men in the family. And the mother will be happy if they can move into a classier house. One son, Frank, will leave. Another, Jack, will presumably write this novel in later life. Samarkand has even less narrative drive than A Storm from Paradise. But its power lies in the attempt to catch in one novel the mass of a whole family’s separate and collective yearnings. The result is a sustained poetic disorganisation in which literary effects are strained for – often with success. But good as it is, one feels that Murray might be happier with the verse novel, if any publishers would countenance reviving the form.

The Godfather has had prequels and sequels. In this latest work, Puzo supplies us with what may be called an interquel. The Sicilian returns to that part of the original narrative in which Michael Corleone found refuge in Sicily. We knew that the Don-apparent married, and lost his wife by vendetta there. Now we are to understand that Michael also became involved with the bandit hero Salvatore Guiliano.

Puzo’s fiction has always suffered from its à clef teasingness, the sense that for the sake of his own skin he can’t name names. The Sicilian benefits from being about a historically identifiable figure. Set in the corruption of post-war Italy, Puzo’s novel traces the growth of Guiliano’s political consciousness. It is born in violence, when the authorities confiscate a cheese he is smuggling, and wantonly murder his companion. Salvatore graduates into a Sicilian Robin Hood, distributing his stolen spoils to the poor. Finally, he assumes a revolutionary power. As such, he menaces both the Government and their secret allies, the Mafia, who join together to destroy him. Salvatore is entangled, trapped, assassinated and his memory vilified. And with him, all hope for a better future dies: Puzo is at least trying something marginally different this time. And it’s noticeable that The Sicilian is much more hostile to gangsterism than the culpably ambivalent original work. Altogether, it’s a rather odd chip off the old block.

Dan Kavanagh’s ‘Duffy’ series, of which Putting the boot in is the third, gets better and better. This time round the bisexual (but heterosexually inhibited) private eye is involved in the seedy world of Third Division football, investigating what looks like club sabotage. There are some funny AIDS jokes (‘Who the hell was this Kaposi guy? He had a name like one of those old Hollywood movie stars. Bela Kaposi’), and some rather more tasteful comedy on the subject of Duffy’s modest heroics in goal for the Western Sunday Reliables. But the main attraction of the novel is its glum eloquence about life as something barely worth living. Duffy’s sic transit meditations about soccer fame, for instance: ‘Pampered swaggerers, they strut the floodlit pitch for the last time, salute the fans, and disappear down the tunnel. Suddenly they find it’s colder there, and they don’t feel so tall, and no one applauds; there’s a faint smell of piss and Ajax, a 40-watt bulb overhead ... and that tunnel is the rest of your life.’

[*] Carcanet, 144 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 26 September 1985, 0 85635 542 9.