Father Bosco to Africa

Walter Nash

  • The Red Men by Patrick McGinley
    Cape, 304 pp, £10.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 224 02386 1
  • Chat Show by Terence de Vere White
    Gollancz, 207 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 575 03910 8
  • Leaden Wings by Zhang Jie, translated by Gladys Yang
    Virgo, 180 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 86068 759 7
  • Russian Novel by Edward Kuznetsov, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw
    Quartet, 285 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7043 2522 5
  • Richard Robertovich by Mark Frankland
    Murray, 216 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4330 4

Patrick McGinley’s pastoral parable, The Red Men, begins with Gulban Heron, rural overlord of a hotel, a shop and four sons. There is dark-haired Jack, capable, ruthless, dissolute, his father’s favourite, and there are three carrot-polled losers, the red men of the title: Cookie, a jaded man of letters, typically apt to give life a literary form and content; cynical Joey, with his fire-scarred face, who mistrusts the emotions and gives his mind to geology and shopkeeping; and Father Bosco, with his fire-damped soul, reminiscently plagued by lust and distressed by the loneliness of his calling. There is also Pauline, the brothers’ companion since childhood, who keeps the hotel books and is about to marry Jack.

These are the personae of the House of Heron, as the hotel is portentously called, one of the rival enclaves in Mr McGinley’s narrative. Its counter is Fort Knox, a house so called because of its high surrounding wall, occupied by Mrs Bugler, a ripe widow whose sports are of the supine sort, and her fey daughter Alicia. Imagine, then, two castles, one of lusty enterprise, the other of enterprising lust, set against the backdrop world of the stone-strewn, sheep-habited headland, the moody sea, the beckoning offshore island, the token tenantry of rustic characters, enigmatic, pragmatic, dogmatic, deeply enduring. Readers may detect an odour of Lawrence here and there, or catch a whiff of Cold Comfort Farm: but the scene is deepest Ireland.

Onto this pastoral-mythical set Mr McGinley brings the machinery of a plot derived from the parable of the talents. On his 77th birthday, Gulban presents each of his sons with £10,000, and announces that his heir will be the one who, after a year, can demonstrate the best use of the gift. The anticipated prize-winner is go-getting Jack, who, however, goes and gets himself killed in a car accident, leaving three brothers now burdened with the perturbing possibility of success. Their troubles are presently compounded when Gulban suffers a stroke and becomes their stricken Jehovah, bed-ridden judge of their inadequacies. They suffer from introspection and self-doubt, and their efforts, pathetic or comical, lose the name of action. Father Bosco, a reluctant contender, meditates the possibility of turning the hotel into a haven for elderly priests; Joey buys himself a motor-boat, and an island from which to take a fairer view of things; Cookie falls ideally in love with Alicia, writes her a cheque (to support her studies), and is realistically bedded by her anthropophagic mama.

Happenings accumulate like breakers, and yet it seems that nothing is made to happen. The impulse of the plot falters, the humour sours, the Irish mood turns oddly Greek and doom-laden as the actors discover the truths of their own histories and natures. The last and most hurtful revelation comes with Gulban’s death, when the red men learn that Jack was not their brother and that Pauline, beneficiary of the will, is their half-sister. With this, the story is not so much concluded as deadlocked, and it remains only to despatch the characters: Joey to oblivion in the sea beyond his island, Father Bosco to Africa, perennial exile of the penitent, and Cookie to America, last resort of the PhD. Pauline is left with her inheritance and her custody of the truth, still in diverse senses steadfastly keeping the books straight.

Mr McGinley is inventive and eloquent, his humour puckish and Paddy-wry; he has a fine command of comic irony (how poignantly funny, for instance, that Cookie, so thoroughly seduced by a skilled erotic practitioner, should be writing a thesis on the idea of seduction as extended metaphor in the works of Samuel Richardson), and his evocations of landscape and seascape are successful, not simply as description, but as definitions of a mythic environment. There is much to praise, and yet there remains one fairly considerable reservation: the book belies the promise of its opening chapters, which predicate action. Posed as agents, the characters are victims; their author directs them into a dispirited ante-room of hope, where through their reflections, their memories, their conversations, their perceptions of each other, they elaborately articulate the credentials of their misery. It may be that – to adapt a saying of Yeats – passive suffering is no theme for a novel; it may be that the parable grows a shade too parabolic; but the upshot of it is that the reader loses concern for the red men and their ramifications. Almost memorable, they yet fade from the memory and vanish into artifice, as into a hedge of mist.

Sending your Irishman to America is one way of dismissing him to happiness, or to his next chapter of tragi-comic invention; another is to export him to England, to a voluble career in television. This is the fate of Miles O’Malley, hero of Terence de Vere White’s Chat Show. Chance brings him into chat-showmanship at the age of 42 – and Miles is indeed a chancer, a shamelessly obsessive promoter of himself, accurately described by one of his few friends as ‘deeply frivolous’. His chance to shine lures him away from his sound business and his devoted Irish wife, into an English marriage, a contract with the BBC, and two decades of the fame for which he insatiably hungers, as a folk-hero who puts down the mighty and is adoringly recognised in the street. When his English wife dies, she provides him with the security of a seedy hotel and entrusts him to the conniving care of a dubiously-connected pair of Hibernian hustlers who rackrent most of the hotel’s rooms to the temporarily homeless. His fortunes, too, turn seedy; the BBC refuses to renew his contract, and soon he is ready to try any expedient that might help him recover his lost public face.

He angles unsuccessfully for the opportunity to officiate at the funeral of a colleague. (A jocosely Irish project, this: Terry Wogan, Eamonn Andrews, Frank Delaney and Henry Kelly are to be your actual bearers of the fictional body.) Then he accepts an invitation to speak at the annual dinner of the Alma Tadema Society, founded to boost the decaying fortunes of an aged RA, and used by some of its exotic backers as a cover for less laudable projects, including a traffic in drugs that involves the use of a certain conveniently-located hotel. Here the fable begins to drift from satirical fancy into Grand Guignol melodrama. Several people are grotesquely murdered, and Miles, implicated, is able to clear himself only with the help of his friend Gideon Russell, an ex-bank official and compulsive gambler, and Gideon’s friend and omnicompetent lawyer Moriarty, BA, TCD, an Irishman of a very different pinstripe. At length, when it seems that the chancer’s luck has once more taken an upward turn, that he will sell his story to a national daily, find a new mistress, perhaps be reunited with his first wife, he goes for an enthusiastic trot down Fleet Street and runs into the path of a speeding van.

The plot is intricate, perhaps a little overburdened, as comic plots tend to be, and wrought into a continuous narrative with no chapter divisions to mark the story’s progression as Miles, self-absorbed and lethally gullible, wanders through blending worlds of fact and fancy. There is a darkness in the tale, but the telling is always elegantly witty. (I shall treasure Mr White’s lapidary dismissal of bedroom business: ‘It was not what she wanted at the moment, but it gave him a good opinion of himself.’) The ironic vivacity of the style, and the author’s capacity for macabre invention, make for what is known in blurbspeak as a ‘wonderfully zany’ tale. But the zany is fitfully shadowed by a serio-comic moral theme. Miles readily confounds the actual and the fanciful; he is too well rehearsed in his televisionary trade to distinguish clearly between image and substance, reportable fact and adjustable fiction. This becomes a playful thesis to which Mr White’s book is committed. Throughout the story, and indeed into its very last paragraph, he plays a game of false cognisances and dubious identities, until we are left with the feeling that in his mingling of real and fictional persons, of accurate and misleading perceptions, of realism and melodrama, of the resolved motive and the unresolved mystery, he has brilliantly scripted a chat show that will allow neither the principal performer nor the reader-onlooker to know the true facts of the fiction.

The propensity to regard a novel as a game from which implications of reality are systematically excluded is nothing new in Western literary theory, but – if Zhang Jie’s book is typical – might well be resisted, or simply not understood, in modern China. There is nothing ‘ludic’ about Leaden Wings: it is an essay in Socialist Realism. At the centre of the narrative is the Red Dawn Motor Works, a plausible metaphor for China generally. (Otherwise, symbolic tendencies are not much in evidence.) The Cultural Revolution lies in the recent past; liberals and progressives, barely rehabilitated, are struggling to reform a purblind administration, bring a little humanity into the system. It is a hard and by no means conclusive struggle: if a victory comes, it surely comes on leaden wings.

Zhang Jie’s plea for socialism with a human face is presented through sketches from the interlinked lives of her characters. Women are important figures in the narrative, though the ‘feminism’ of this book hardly begins to resemble what a Western writer might understand by that word. On the whole, the women exemplify temperaments, whereas the men are more obviously representative of different ranks in society – the shop-floor worker, the team leader, the factory manager, the bureau official, the minister. There is a cast of characters with predetermined natures, as unbudging as the traditional humours of a pantomime. There are the reactionaries, the sycophants, the place-seekers, the drones; and there are the reformers, the plain speakers, the idealists, the toilers. It does not offer exciting reading, and the book is made no livelier by the translator’s indefatigable dipping into a musty allsorts of Anglo-American colloquialisms: but in an odd way it commands respect – mainly, I think, by its oblique revelations of the courage and faith of those who have lived through the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution and must now try to make a collaborative and fruitful peace with their former antagonists. So much, so far beyond our comprehension, has happened in China, that it would seem churlish to criticise the Chinese for not writing novels as we do.

Nevertheless, a Chinese novel, even one as simple in construction and straightforward in theme as Leaden Wings, is difficult to understand, and it is difficult precisely because we have such trouble in coming to terms with Chinese customs. It is not simply a matter of needing to learn more about history and institutions. The difficulties I mean are not of the kind that can be cleared away by a commentary or a footnote. They are such as attend the most commonplace reaction or interaction; they lie in the grain of ordinary conversation. More than once, in reading this novel, I was brought to the unmannerly edge of bewildered laughter by exchanges that read like borrowings from Basil Fawlty. Here, for example, Feng, ‘director of political work at the ministry, a conservative’, is in dispute with Ho, ‘an honest outspoken official’:

  ‘I think you’re completely mistaken. Your view is dangerous!’

  ‘I haven’t expressed any view.’

  Trust an intellectual to talk back. But Feng could outsmart him.

  ‘Let’s hear your view then.’

Yes, one mutters, old Feng really outsmarted him there, with that ‘Let’s hear your view then’ – a retort to stop an uppity intellectual in his tracks. But the flippant response is merely symptomatic of surprise at missing a sociolinguistic signal somewhere. In this case, it is partly a matter of appreciating the Chinese implications of that slippery word ‘intellectual’: but more than that, it is a question of understanding the rules and procedures of discourse in a foreign culture – of knowing who may say what sort of thing to whom, in what tone of voice, under what circumstances, and of recognising the strategy of the verbal contest, the sort of move that signals ascendancy. The most accomplished translation cannot elucidate such matters: consequently there must always be times when the foreign reader will feel shut out and disorientated.

Such feelings often attend the reading of translations from the Russian. After the negotiation of patronymics comes the problem of knowing why people abruptly burst out laughing, suddenly take offence, spontaneously weep or are precipitately drunk. Edward Kuznetsov’s Russian Novel, providing as it does a sort of running commentary on Russian-ness, often throws light on that kind of puzzlement – which does not mean that it is a not a complicated and often perplexing book. At one level it is easy enough. Its central figure is a young worker, Dimitri. His elders are the generation of the Thirties, veterans of Spain, victims and survivors of purges and prison camps, persecuted repatriates spiritually pledged to the country that has used them so badly. ‘This is where I learned the important things in life,’ says Dimitri’s father:

‘Its meaning, its value, its flavour ... I was born here for a second time ... In pain and blood, as is right and proper. But over there, it’s as if I’d never lived: it was like living in a swamp, and there was something furtive and fleeting about it ... A day in Russia is worth a year in Canada.’

That profession of faith makes an ironic prologue to Dimitri’s unheroic experience of ‘pain and blood’. He is ordinary and decent, an everyday Russian lad who loves a run-of-the-mill Russian lass, but falls foul of a cynical and ruthless rival, who contrives to have him put away for five years on a trumped-up charge. He returns from hideous experiences in the labour camp to find his girl quite happily married to the crook, and wanders alcoholically downward in a spiral of brutal misfortune and appalling coincidence until he dies in a bungling attempt to wreak vengeance on the rival who has so effortlessly broken his life. Dimitri has no luck, in a country where it is prudent to be lucky: Mr Kuznetsov makes that point abundantly clear, doggedly inflicting supernumerary agonies on his hero.

The complexity of the tale arises in the telling, which requires the intermeshing of biographical event and literary commentary. The twin faces of Literature and Life grimace from the book like theatre masks: we are invited at times to consider that Life informs Literature, at times that Literature dictates to Life. Dimitri’s friend Sipyagin is writing a novel called ‘Unlucky Dimitri’: extracts from this (which suggest that Sipyagin is a rather bad writer) are embedded in Kuznetsov’s narrative. Sipyagin’s fiction reflects, distorts, and gradually assumes the task of predicting, his friend’s experience, provoking Dimitri’s indignant struggle to repudiate the character and destiny proposed for him. Sipyagin’s easy view of suffering (other people’s) as useful material for literature appears as a form of trahison des clercs. Dimitri formulates his sense of betrayal in an argument with another character: ‘Reality is terrible, people don’t have the strength to fight against it ... And I recognise that honestly, whereas you ... You manipulate it in every possible way, you invent ideas.’ This is the theme within the theme of Russian Novel. I am not certain how Mr Kuznetsov wishes us to read it, but if the story leaves in the mind any trace of compassionate resentment, it is as much against the manipulators and the inventors of ideas, as against the oppressors, the thugs and the frankly corrupt.

Dimitri Nikolaievich is an innocent at home in Russia; an innocent abroad – but with a different species of innocence – is the title-figure of Mark Frankland’s fine novel Richard Robertovich. Richard Southwell is an Englishman with an idealistic vision or, as one of his Russian friends puts it, ‘an opium dream’ of the Soviet Union. His faith in it as a place where ‘what counts in life’ can flourish (‘no diplomacy, no politics, just people’) makes him an eager expatriate; he takes a post as translator with a Russian publishing-house and brings his wife and family to Moscow, with the intention of ensconcing himself in a new-made Russophile personality, as Richard Robertovich. The name neatly encapsulates a po-faced wilfulness in the character: others may find it funny, or touching, or absurd, but he bears it insistently, without humour.

Inevitably there arises a niggling tension, comically reflected in Richard’s letters, between the rosy idealism of the husband and the exasperated practicality of the wife battling with problems of supply and distribution. (‘I said it was ridiculous to make one’s life dependent on Phillips’ Dental Magnesia, but she wouldn’t see it.’) The marriage breaks, Ruth Southwell returns to England with her children, and Richard Robertovich is left with his commitment to a way of life he embraces with loyal incomprehension and a complete insensitivity to the vibrations of danger. His naivety invites tragic consequences, which follow when he falls in love and has an affair – in all the doomed romantic zest of middle age – with the wife of a Central Committee official. His stubbornly rehearsed delusion that people must triumph over mere politics prevents him from understanding the hard facts of his situation, in a country where no immigrant worker, however privileged, can be allowed to embarrass officials of the Central Committee, however minor, and where the wives of such officials will do as they are told, forget their romantic vows.

The screws are turned, quite gently – a hint, a fair warning of menace here, a gesture of intimidation there:

‘We aren’t sadists, you know. It’s not like the old days ... At the same time we aren’t squeamish ... When we see someone doing something that has no future in it, we warn him ... And if he doesn’t stop, we stop him.’

They duly ‘stop’ Richard Robertovich. He is driven to suicide, and his attempts to record his Russian experience are destroyed. His ashes are scattered obscurely in the yard of a housing complex, and the foolish, touching dream is over.

The narrative is framed by a prologue and epilogue in which Richard’s son describes his visit to Moscow to collect his father’s effects and bring back the dead man’s ashes. (He scatters the ashes and takes back an empty urn.) One of his father’s friends entrusts to him a file of papers which explain the fate of Richard Robertovich. (He reads the file and burns it – whether in compassion or a spirit of rejection we are left to decide for ourselves.) These framing episodes are of value not merely in setting up the narrative, but also in expressing a cold judgment on the hero, that of his alienated child. The coldness, the pained withdrawal of feeling, appears in the style, in the frequency of rather short sentences and the recurrence of ‘objective’ statements in the present tense: ‘We get in the car,’ ‘I open the fridge.’

The ‘dossier’ thus framed consists of letters, journal entries and other papers, composed by Richard himself or by people in his circle of acquaintance, notably his ironic, timid, broken, wise, nobly loyal friend Igor Oblomov. (The name has resonances – possibly Mr Frankland is enjoying a little joke?) In the dossier Richard and Russia expound themselves to each other. We meet Russian types – Igor, Morozov the wheeler-dealer, Samsonov the samizdat historian, Yevdokimov, the quiet man of power, the Central Committee official whose wife Richard covets. Types, perhaps – but they are not stereotypically treated. We are not even allowed to see Yevdokimov as a Party heavy, an ape in the apparatus. He is intelligent and perceptive, capable of composing a witty Orwellian fable (called Mice – by a Lover of Mice) on the rival claims of capitalism and Communism. The reader is never allowed to settle comfortably into the simple conviction that Richard is victimised by thugs, ninnies or machine-men. He nurtures his own calamity.