Turns of the Screw

Hugh Barnes

  • Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi
    Constable, 184 pp, £8.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 00 946724 6
  • Lost Time by Catharine Arnold
    Hodder, 220 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 340 38783 1
  • The Bridge by Iain Banks
    Macmillan, 259 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 333 41285 0
  • Incidents at the Shrine by Ben Okri
    Heinemann, 130 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 434 53230 4
  • Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
    Heinemann, 150 pp, £3.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 435 90526 0
  • The Innocents by Carolyn Slaughter
    Viking, 219 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 670 81016 9

The first novels of Lewis Nkosi and Catharine Arnold raise issues that have been in the news of late: racist oppression in South Africa and the ugly behaviour of the smart set at England’s oldest universities. Neither phenomenon is new, but that is not all they have in common: both can be regarded as symptoms of madness, which is always making news – this, at any rate, is the diagnosis favoured by Nkosi and Arnold. They discount the talk of journalists and are at pains to show how states of emergency or of madness come about, and how adversity in the world modifies concern for the self. Much emphasis is laid on the unconscious activity of the mind, which for Sibiya in Mating Birds as well as for Francesca in Lost Time means horrid imaginings, displacement and a fear of poltergeists. Capitulation is charted: Sibiya awaits execution in a Durban jail, although the Government is about to fall and from his cell he can hear street-singers announcing ‘the near-dawn of freedom’. Francesca, a famous concert cellist, suffers private madness – as opposed to the collective variety accountable for apartheid – in the form of a nervous breakdown. At the same time taboos are flouted by the characters and invoked by the authors as if they were the unconscious of society. Sibiya’s crime was to sleep with a white woman, while a revelation of incest, for which a neglectful father is held to be responsible, contributes to Lost Time. In each case the novelist has recourse to psychoanalytic theory, and a meaningful relationship would seem to be implied between free societies and the free association of ideas.

Lost Time describes a group of young people who enjoy certain advantages of the Arnoldian (no relation) training of mind: they have been brought up to read novels and casually to drop names in conversation. Allusions to literature proliferate, and the reader is expected to take as much pleasure in highbrow flourishes as the characters themselves do. Lost Time conforms stylishly to the requirements of the Varsity novel: a genre patronised by Dorothy Sayers and Frederic Raphael, and to be distinguished from the campus novels (more academic, not so upper-class) of, say, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. Miles Tattershall lectures, with moderate success, in 17th-century literature at Cambridge. He, too, is conventional, in so far as conventions exist for fictional men of letters. Like Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels – whose title has a similar Proustian evocativeness – Miles is preparing a fastidious study of the Anatomy of Melancholy. Like Jenkins, Miles has a propensity to quote from Burton’s ‘torrential passages’. But neither his temperate despair, identified by Burton as the scholar’s malady, nor his anxiety to avoid pain at all costs (according to a principle set down by that other doctor of melancholy, Sigmund Freud), precludes Miles’s infatuation with one of his students. Benjy wears a Barbour and an expression of aloof boyishness that makes Miles feel ‘like some East Anglian Aschenbach’.

The opening locations, Cambridge, Covent Garden and Campden Hill Square, are evacuated, and the action switches to the Old Vicarage at Bly, a place full of the appropriate Jamesian menace. At this point in the story Arnold appears to discover her subject, which is fetishism mainly and which is discussed with reference to some of James’s own interests – traumatic family life, sibling rivalry and the susceptibility of the masculine character. As if to accommodate such a discussion, the size of the household increases with the arrival of Francesca (Miles’s sister) to recuperate after her illness, and of Olivia (Benjy’s sister), who has been invited to spend the summer at Bly before going up to Cambridge. The screw turns and after 33 years of unblemished bookishness Miles turns to screwing. He sleeps with Benjy, which proves a revelation, and one night, when Benjy is away in London for a pop concert, Olivia seduces him. By the end of the novel the connotation of its title has changed. Lost time is now not so much remembered as made up for.

Although Arnold has written a ghost story lacking a ghost, her characters often claim to be haunted. The unfortunate Francesca falls for Olivia and has nightmares. At the same time rumours begin to circulate in the village to the effect that the church is possessed by sinister nocturnal spirits. These cease, however, after Miles discovers the cause of the disturbance – Benjy and Olivia’s incestuous liaison. Likewise his friendship with Benjy ends abruptly and cannot be resumed even after Olivia’s suicide, which Miles finds it hard not to attribute to a death-wish in contrast to his own self-preserving instincts.

Miles’s complex journey of discovery is made to appear more perilous by an exaggerated change in his personality: he cultivates an undonnish interest in designer gear, and is seen finally departing for the sexier groves of American academe. It must be said that this alteration is only partially or part-plausibly accomplished by Arnold. Her rendering of an overheated imagination, and of accidents that proceed from it, is enhanced, however, by comparison with Iain Banks’s treatment of related matters in his new novel. Banks has made a name for himself as an unembarrassable master of the macabre, which he gleefully represented in The Wasp Factory and Walking on glass. Sometimes he writes as if he’d invented conspiracy theory. A feature of the earlier novels was that madness was attended by some kind of physical deformity. The hero of The Bridge starts out in a comatose state, having recently been the victim of a car crash which, unlike Olivia’s, was neither fatal nor premeditated. The prose is hardly enjoyable at times, because the attempt has been made to reproduce the manifest and unsorted language of dreams. Banks also lapses into unsorted Scottish slang as his amnesic hero tries out different ways of retrieving the past. But what is remarkable about the novel, besides an occasionally stunning verbal display, is the assurance with which Banks logs the first faltering steps of the journey back to consciousness. The bridge itself forms part of a dream, and as John Orr revives, the fantastical structure becomes a reason for carrying on dreaming, since it alone offers hope of bridging gaps in the activity of his mind which have resulted from the accident. Orr’s reaction to all this, to the dream itself, is futilely to denounce it: ‘This is a dream. This cannot be happening. This is not possible.’

Sibiya, who is already a prisoner at the beginning of Mating Birds, gazes out of a grilled window at the birds mating ‘in freedom and open space’. He resembles Orr in his awareness, albeit vague and full of self-recrimination, of an opposite way of life and of a condition of separateness greater than his own miserable state: in South Africa it is the name given to a prevailing system of politics. Unlike Orr, Sibiya accepts what is happening as real, and dismisses what preceded it as an illusion: even the sex he had with the ‘English’ girl was ‘like a dream, like sleepwalking’, and it is re-enacted in other dreams he has in jail. Nkosi does not provide an analysis of the rapist’s mind because that is the task of Dr Emile Dufré, a Viennese shrink assigned to Sibiya by the authorities, and because to do that it would be necessary to consider, as the prosecutors do, sex with a white woman the height of bliss and for a black man to achieve it an offence against hierarchy, a violence indistinguishable from rape. In the days running up to his execution Sibiya’s idleness is devoted to recollections of his trial. He remembers how Veronica, the white woman, lied to the jury but remarkably he feels no bitterness. Indeed his insouciance evokes that of another outsider, Camus’s Meursault, who was sentenced to death for what was construed as an act of racial aggression. But he also meditates on the coming revolution and the freedom his country will have after his death. Without rhetoric Nkosi describes Sibiya’s abdication of the self and his discovery of concern for the well-being of others.

Ben Okri writes about social disintegration – and he does it in language that is itself disintegrating and full of the terminology of vomiting and shit. The mood of his collection of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine, harks back to Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart, whose appearance in 1958 marked the beginning of modern African literature. In that novel Achebe described the changes that occurred within the Igbo society of Umuofia in Nigeria during the last century as a result of the arrival of Western entrepreneurship, administration and guns. The younger generation of writers, however, have tended to concentrate on post-colonial situations, although it could be said that Achebe himself initiated this movement with the publication of a sequel to Things fall apart, in which the grandson of that novel’s hero, Okonkwo, finds himself implicated in the civil service corruption which, in the mid-1960s, finally brought down Nigeria’s First Republic. Okri, who is also Nigerian, focuses not so much on the rapidity of industrial and economic change characteristic of that earlier period and injurious to traditional aspects of African life as on the new relations ushered in by independence, particularly in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War. In the title story Anderson has come to grief in the town and, having lost his job, returns to the village where he was born. One of the elders complacently reminds him of the regenerative quality of country life: ‘You must come home now and again. This is where you divine your power.’ Similarly in Mating Birds Sibiya remembers his Zulu homeland and a pastoral childhood that has the effect of transfiguring his plight. In Nkosi’s Durban, as in Okri’s Lagos, heterogeneity of peoples, which doesn’t exist in the tribal provinces, means that castes, religions and races must learn to co-habit. The divination of power becomes a widespread concern of all these fictions which also try to show how it is used to separate those without protection. In this respect, all writers in Africa write about apartheid.

Carolyn Slaughter returns to the particular. When she was planning her story, its description of upheaval in South Africa must have been intended as a speculative exercise. But events have overtaken the novel or caught up with it. The action takes place away from the townships, amid the heat and dust of the plain: Afrikaner territory. In a farmstead three children – a white brother and sister and a mulatto servant – make the most of their paradisal surroundings. Zelda even allows Hannah, the half-caste, to sleep on the end of her bed. Zelda’s brother Dawie and Hannah become lovers: every day he rehearses for her the contents of the previous night’s dream. At first the boy and girl communicate in Afrikaans, which prevails in the district, but they fall silent when that language is tarnished by acts of hatred perpetrated by its possessors. The couple are left without means of exchange, apart from dreams which make possible an impossible relationship and which reveal in Dawie and Hannah’s attachment to each other inscriptions in the unconscious of miscellaneous changes in the order of things.

The Innocents is resolved in the reunion of Dawie and Hannah after years of separation and in intrigues concerning paternity. But the political intrigue, despite a full-scale resettlement of the black population and a smaller reversal in the fortunes of whites, remains unresolved. As her farmworkers pack up to go and join rebellious forces in the mountains, Zelda recalls that her ancestor, a Voortrekker, travelled across this vast, flat country because he too desired freedom from oppression – at the hands of the British. The veld became onse plek to the Afrikaners, ‘our place’, and now even that is being taken away. The innocence of the novel’s title might refer to such an assumption that everybody has their own place, which cannot be usurped. But the novel questions the plausibility of this idea: Africans are herded from bantustan to bantustan, the whites are in permanent flight, and even Dawie experiences displacement. He graduates from university, moves to the city, marries unhappily and sets up his own law practice, which is of some assistance to the underprivileged. But he has to admit that philanthropy is not enough: that around onse plek the Afrikaners have built a wall which you must keep beating against if you do not want to become a part of the fortification.