World’s End

John Sutherland

  • The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard
    Gollancz, 254 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 575 04152 8
  • The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 310 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 340 34154 8
  • In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
    Secker, 244 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 436 34009 7
  • The House of Hospitalities by Emma Tennant
    Viking, 184 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 670 81501 2

After the autobiographical candour of Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard returns to his familiar austere impersonality with The Day of Creation. Superficially, this latest terminal vision recalls the doomed worlds of the author’s earlier Science Fiction, and at some points seems a close reworking of The Drought (1965). In that parched novel, the earth has ceased to produce rain because of radioactive waste and its waters are drying to produce a global dustbowl. In the last twenty years the inexorable advance of the Sahara has spared Ballard from having to invent his climatic catastrophe and gives his 1987 apocalyptic fable a more ominous edge of realism.

In the ‘dead heart of the African continent’ somewhere between Chad, the Sudan and the Central African Republic, Dr Mallory works for the WHO in an apparently futile search for water on the dried-up bed of Lake Kotto, a task in which he has little support from his employer and none at all from the local regime, headed by the thuggish Captain Kagwa. Ballard, as his admirers will know, frequently employs doctor heroes, perhaps the outcome of his own abortive medical career at Cambridge, a vocation which he gave up in order to write, doubtless thinking the sickness of the age had more need of the prophet than the physician. Mallory has given up Western medical practice because their populations ‘had failed to be sufficiently ill to meet certain bizarre needs of my own’. He came to Africa as a doctor, but now stays on as a hydrologist, or water-diviner.

With no more than preliminary scene-setting, Ballard sets up a criss-cross of haunting allusions to Marlowe in the heart of darkness, Moses who struck water from the rock, Mallory who climbed Everest for no better reason than its being there, and, of course, to Adam, paradise-loser. As Eve, there’s a Rhodesian widow, Nora Warrender, another piece of European debris. Once the owner of a menagerie of exotic animals, who have since escaped, Nora dreams of creating a new and reversed Eden in Africa, teeming with all species save one. Mallory has made love to her perfunctorily and she is raped by a large but indefinite number of Africans during the course of the novel. None of these experiences reconciles Nora to the male animal. On the fringe of things is a Japanese photographer, coldly covering Mallory’s activities for the world and for posterity.

The action proper opens with Mallory caught by General Harare, commander of a diseased rabble of revolutionaries. In the past he has treated the guerrillas, but now it seems they will kill him so as to deny the regime an asset. A 12-year-old girl with a wounded foot and an ulcerated mouth guards Mallory, armed with a rusty Lee Enfield that is to figure talismanically throughout the subsequent story. Mallory tries to escape, and the girl pulls the trigger. At this point it is plausible to assume an Incident-at-Owl-Creek twist. But as the written story tells us, the firing pin or cartridge fails and Mallory survives into a fugue of increasingly hyperreal experiences. The guerrillas are driven off by Kagwa, accompanied by a TV guru, Professor Sanger, who has flown in with fifty tons of (wholly useless) grain, donated by the German viewing public. Mallory’s murderous 12-year-old is caught, but he saves her life by perversely denying that she has anything to do with the guerrillas.

A little later, a bulldozer uproots an old blackened stump on the dry lake bed. It releases a trickle of water which swells to a flood, and eventually forms ‘the third Nile’. Mallory initially resents this river, which he buys from Kagwa for $1000 and promptly names after himself. He dams the Mallory to prevent its detritus of beer cans, used condoms and dead snakes from invading his pure but dry wells. His hastily thrown up earthworks break, killing the Japanese photographer. Her role is taken over by Sanger, who now follows Mallory everywhere with his video camera, making a secret record of events for Japanese television. Mallory is also followed by the 12-year-old girl, now identified as ‘Noon’, who has apparently chosen him as her future mate after some unspecified ordeal has been undergone.

The bulk of the novel chronicles a meaningless but obsessively driven pilgrimage towards the distant source of the Mallory, a mysteriously ambiguous waterway which brings disease and war as it irrigates the arid wastes of the Sahara. Dr Mal, as he is now called, Sanger and Noon make their way through familiar Ballardian landscapes, their vision sharpened and estranged by the waterborne fly fever. Their craft is a stolen car ferry, allusively called the Salammbo. They are all the while pursued by Kagwa and their paths cross with Nora Warrender, who has a river mission of her own. She has commandeered a brothel boat called (as allusively) the Diana, complete with a figurehead of the future queen of England and crewed by under-age widows. This whores’ commune, or floating Venus mantrap, devotes itself to snaring and killing any soldier who turns up. Having failed to stock her Eden with new species, Warrender has evidently decided to start from the other end and exterminate all of homo sapiens first. In her role of fair but unchaste huntress she wears the peignoir in which she was raped.

After a series of debilitating and wildly hallucinatory adventures, Mallory kills Kagwa with the Lee Enfield, finds the mountainous basin whose cracked floor fed his great river, and finally plants his seed in the enigmatic Noon, now inexplicably decked out in the tawdry finery of one of Nora’s nymphet widows: ‘My teeth tore a strip of sequins from the bodice of her gown, and the glass jewels beaded the nipples of her miniature breasts. For a moment, through the haze of perfume and the stench of the poisoned river, I could smell a familiar skin, the sharp sweet odour of the 12-year-old who had sailed the Salammbo with me down the far reaches of the Mallory.’ In the morning, he wonders if the whole thing was a delirious fantasy. But the taste of pus on his tongue and bloody saliva stains on the pillow confirm that it must have been Noon with her ulcerated mouth. Abstractly, this is all most distasteful and this is an inauspicious moment to be publishing a novel about middle-aged doctors ravishing 12-year-old girls. But as Ballard has created her, Noon is as inhuman as Rima in Green Mansions. The Day of Creation is no more about child abuse than ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is about duck shooting.

The Mallory, it emerges, cannot last. It was the spasm of a tectonic shift which flushed a vast wave through the heart of Africa’s corruption, insufficient either to cleanse or regenerate. Creation is merely day-long, succeeded as it was preceded by ages of sterility. The end of the novel finds the Sahara two years further advanced and Mallory awaiting the return of the mysteriously disappeared Noon: ‘Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will also return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart.’

The last word of the novel recalls Conrad. The Heart of Darkness is, however, a risky model. As Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now suggest, its invoked presence can leach the life out of any presumptuous rewriting, converting it into so much anaemic homage. Graham Greene tells us that in his apprentice days he found The Heart of Darkness so overwhelming an influence that he had to give up reading Conrad altogether. Nevertheless, Greene went on to write The Heart of the Matter. Similarly, Ballard seems to have found his engagement with Conrad an inescapable literary destiny. Like many of his readers, I imagine, I had rather hoped for something more along the lines of Empire of the Sun, but he is the least biddable of authors, as those who have tried to pin him down as ‘Britain’s leading writer of SF’ have found. This latest work will enhance his reputation as a leading writer with no strings attached.

Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker is actually about the making of Australia and commemorates (the blurbist’s ‘celebrates’ is not the word) the bicentenary of the founding of the English colony in January 1788. It is the kind of subject that would inspire a less devious civilisation-chronicler like James Michener to epic slabs of narrative and at least two thousand pages, sweeping us from the formation of the continental land mass to Paul Hogan’s amber nectar ads. But Keneally habitually sidles into his big subjects, illuminating them indirectly by odd exemplary events overlooked or at best footnoted by history proper. The germ of The Playmaker, one gathers, was a passing reference in early accounts of the colony to a convict stage production. The play was George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and the occasion the King’s birthday, 1789. Apparently, the convicts’ efforts to please ‘were not unattended with applause’.

It is a queer little episode. The honoured king was mad. Europe itself was a little mad in 1789, one might think. Farquhar’s play is a cynical late Restoration comedy about cheating and crimping unwilling yokels to the colours, which might, to a thoughtful observer, have seemed almost seditious. Certainly it was unfashionably indecent by the end of the 18th century. And never can an amateur production have had a stranger setting; effectively, the Stone Age crossed with Newgate.

The first boatloads of 730 convicts (160 female) and 250 free persons, mainly marines, left England in May 1787 under the command of Captain (later Governor) Arthur Phillip, reaching Botany Bay nine months later. Finding the environment inclement, they promptly moved a little way along the coast to Sydney Cove, site of the later city. The French had also landed, and to establish a national presence the little British community indulged in what displays of ‘pomp’ they could manage, including, it would appear, this play production. Meanwhile they almost starved, bickered, and spread deadly disease among the Aboriginal inhabitants who had met them on the shore with cries to go away. So modern Australia was born.

There are two standard explanations put forward for the 1788 settlement, neither of which can inspire a warm glow in the modern Australian or home country breast. One is that England’s jails, then as now, were bursting at the seams with prisoners scooped up by the mindless severity of the laws protecting property. There being no provision for life imprisonment for those reprieved from the hangman, transportation to the other side of the planet was devised. The other explanation for the expedition (which Keneally seems to favour) suggests that the British Government had been persuaded by Captain Cook to believe that Australia would be a rich source of flax production and mast timber, which could replace possibly hostile European suppliers. This commercial optimism proved unfounded. Flax would not grow and the Australian pines were too knotty. But the authorities were in no mind to double their losses by bringing their unwilling pioneers home.

The main sections of The Playmaker cover the period after landing until the arrival of the Sirius with supplies from the Cape in May 1789. The narrative is loose-jointed and not always easily followed, but it mainly centres on Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the playmaker or producer, otherwise a junior marine officer. Apparently a historical personage, Clark comes from Devon and has indentured himself to an agent to raise cash for the support of his wife and child while he is away. A rational grass widower by day, by night he is tormented by dreams of his wife’s infidelity. And during rehearsals, he becomes sexually infatuated with his leading actress, Mary Brenham, a former servant transported at 14 for stealing her mistress’s underclothes. A child victim of British justice, Mary plays the part of Silvia, child to Justice Balance. Off-stage, Mary has her own child by the sailor who protected her on the voyage out (the alternative was to become the common property of the crew), and during rehearsals is beaten up and raped by a monstrously endowed Madagascan convict, Black Caesar. All these are problems. But the chief obstacle to Mary’s cohabiting with Clark is modesty. She has tattooed on her backside the message, ‘Andrew Hilton I love thee to the grave’, Hilton being her former London fence. This embarrassment is cleared up, however, and Mary goes to live as Clark’s housekeeper by day and his bedwarmer by night. In an epilogue, we learn that the hero deserts her when he leaves the colony after a five-year tour, she being no more able to return to England than Mrs Clark could come to Australia. Ralph soon after dies in the French wars. His rump-branded lag-wife Brenham and her bastard new-world child Alicia (named after Clark’s legal wife) live on. ‘Of them fiction could make much, though history says nothing,’ Keneally’s historical fiction enigmatically concludes.

There is much more to The Playmaker than strange theatricals and justified concubinage. The narrative moves to and fro within its narrow band of time and ranges over the diverse community of Sydney Cove. Much space is devoted to the convict underworld, with its thieves’ talk, secret societies and constant brushes with the law. Even in the new world, settlers are hanged, flogged and retransported (to nearby Norfolk Island). Keneally’s episodic progression allows him to draw at length Harry Brewer, the colony’s Provost Marshal. Formerly the oldest midshipman in the Royal Navy, Brewer ran away to sea to escape the consequence of his thieving, only to find himself once again threatened by the criminal underworld he now nominally keeps in order. He protects himself by witchcraft purchased from a pliant lag, Dabby Bryant, and his mystical faith in crime as literally an infernal underworld is opposed to Clark’s stolid rationalism. Another sideline to the main narrative traces the moral collapse of the Governor, ‘H.E.’ (not named, presumably, because Keneally has taken some licence with the known historical character of Phillip). H.E. has a tormenting sense of fellowship with the convicts which obscurely originates in earlier experiences in the Portuguese colonies. And he adopts an Aborigine, Arabanoo, initially as a native envoy and possibly also as a lover. Arabanoo (like Matthew Flinders’s tame Aborigine, Bungaree) is satirically decked out in an officer’s uniform and kept half-sozzled on brandy. When this innocent dies, just before the play comes off, the Governor loses all will to govern. (Phillip did actually sicken around this time, and was invalided home in 1792.) In recognition of the racial crime on which the white man’s Australia is founded, Keneally dedicates The Playmaker ‘To Arabanoo and his brethren, still dispossessed’. Few other novels could carry off the gesture as authoritatively.

Keneally anatomises historical Australia by plucking from its origins a strange factual nugget. Michael Ondaatje does something similar for Canada with a wispy succession of word paintings eerily evocative of a past he cannot have known but can magically conjure. His prose is consciously poetic and at first sight seems more conditioned by the need to impress the judges of grant-awarding committees (who have duly awarded very generously) than by the grosser preferences of the lay reader. Nevertheless, the heavily descriptive style with its artful leaps and riddling silences is addictive.

A new Canadian, Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Ceylon, of mixed Dutch, Sinhalese and Tamil ancestry, which suggests that he has at least one other good historical novel in him, should he care to write it. For In the Skin of a Lion he takes as hero Patrick Lewis, a second-generation Canadian of rooted British origins. The opening sections relate Patrick’s early life on an Ontario farm in the second decade of the century. Among all the vivid first impressions of childhood, he makes his first attempts to grasp, mentally and manually, what Canada is:

The house is in darkness except for the bright light in the kitchen. He sits down at the long table and looks into his school geography book with the maps of the world, the white sweeps of currents, testing the names to himself, mouthing out the exotic. Caspian, Nepal, Durango. He closes the book and brushes it with his palms, feeling the texture of the pebbled cover and its coloured dyes which create a map of Canada.

Patrick’s father is later killed in the explosion of a feldspar mine and in 1923 the young hero goes to Toronto, where he first works as a ‘searcher’, a $4-a-week finder of missing persons. His quarry is Ambrose Small, a decamped robber baron. Patrick becomes instead sexually involved with Small’s mistress, Clara Dickens, and through her meets the love of his life, Alice Gull.

Patrick works in 1930 as a labourer on the great tunnel under Lake Ontario. This construction is the dream of Rowland Harris, a man as gigantically selfish and driven as was Small, who in his perfectionism imports herringbone tiles from Siena for his tunnel’s toilets. Irrationally, these small ornaments radicalise Patrick and although the narrative becomes misty at this point, what seems to happen is that Alice is blown up carrying dynamite for some anarchist strike. Patrick goes to prison, and on his release plants bombs in the hated tunnel and confronts Harris, blasting-box in hand. But Harris persuades Patrick that he really belongs to the newly made Canada of bridges, tunnels and conurbations: ‘You must realise you are like these places, Patrick. You’re as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires.’ He is, in one of the book’s dominant images, part of the mosaic of emergent Canada. It’s a somewhat banal conclusion but one which does not damagingly detract from the book’s extraordinary sensitivity and sure touch in historical reconstruction.

Emma Tennant is the least predictable of novelists. Her last effort, The Adventures of Robina, recalled the perils of adolescence and sexual initiation in the late 1950s (a decade in which the author is clearly very interested) using the antique burlesque of a pastiche Fanny Hill journal. The House of Hospitalities is set in 1953 and is told with disarming ‘my diary’ confidingness by a 14-year-old narrator looking back at the ingenue comedy of her first exposure to high society. Jenny Carter is the daughter of a minor civil servant currently serving in the West Indies. She has been left in the robust care of her aunt Babs, a socialist spinster through whose sensible but unimaginative eyes the impressionable heroine has hitherto been happy to view the world. This changes when Jenny is invited by aristocratic Amy Rudd to spend the summer with her at Lovegrove Manor in Hertfordshire: a pushier and more eligible friend, Candida Tarn, has come down with chickenpox. During a few packed days at this House of Hospitalities the young heroine’s innocence is assaulted by spectacles of patrician corruption (Lord Lovescombe committing adultery in the bamboo, Lady Lovescombe committing adultery in the ornamental pond) and looniness (strange relatives behind every bush). And having herself ‘only half-left childhood’, she intuitively recognises in her hosts ‘the permanent childhood of adults decked out in the contents of a dressing-up box where the fabulous furs are real and the great paste stones in the tiaras prove, on closer examination, to come from the mines of South Africa’. Despite this insight, Jenny is strangely incapable of taking the next logical step of repudiation: ‘Lovegrove would go at the prick of a pin, vanish into the clouds of its own long-lost assumptions. The trouble was, there was no pin to prick it with. Like convicts, we were relieved of all sharp instruments on entering the premises.’ Something almost symbolic is articulated here – namely, British society’s affectionate tolerance of its unfit-to-rule ruling class. And in one of its aspects, The House of Hospitalities is a deceptively shrewd meditation on power and rank. In another aspect, it is a charming evocation of the period, with a telling eye for such half-forgotten detail as Dansette record players, aertex shirts and Juliette Greco mannerisms. But the work’s principal charm is its artfully managed narrative prattle, which contrives to say all sorts of things while ostensibly saying next to nothing.