Yak Sandwiches

Christopher Burns

  • Pleasure by John Murray
    Aidan Ellis, 233 pp, £10.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 85628 167 0
  • Absurd Courage by Nobuko Albery
    Century, 254 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7126 1149 5
  • Laing by Ann Schlee
    Macmillan, 302 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 333 45633 5
  • The Part of Fortune by Laurel Goldman
    Faber, 249 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 14921 9
  • In the Fertile Land by Gabriel Josipovici
    Carcanet, 212 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 85635 716 2

John Murray’s fiction has always seemed to arise directly from the circumstances of his own life. At first, his work concentrated on his childhood and adolescence among the tiny, depressed communities that straggle along the English side of the Solway Firth. He then broke with his working-class background and read Sanskrit and Avestan at Oxford, later studying classical Indian medicine. These somewhat unexpected interests inform and animate many of the stories in this first collection, Pleasure. Meanwhile, although the autobiographical element in his work is still strong, a new range of settings has broadened his perspectives and brought his talent into sharper focus. The stories are linked, not by a common character, but by a kind of standardised personification of certain experiences, beliefs, interests. It isn’t too difficult to spot the similarities between the Cumbrian boy winning a scholarship to a prestigious university, the graduates wandering through the Indian subcontinent in the Calcutta and Katmandu stories, the character Stone on a ‘directionless pilgrimage’ through the Hebrides. And although the arrangement of the stories is not chronological, Murray is in the habit of specifying the ages of his protagonists, so that the progress of a life can be made out. Murray doesn’t flatter his alter ego, but portrays him as somewhat callow, lacking compassion, though clever, and often plunged into contrition because he does not, or will not, live by the certainties by which others steer their lives. He is nevertheless dogged by epiphany, so that wherever he goes, insight follows like an elusive and confusing sprite. The stages of his journey are set out in a style that is densely wrought, ironic, and eager to incorporate both vivid colloquialism and arcane abstraction. Such a form gives an individual pattern, not to say skew, to the content. A sense of the particular is fostered, too, by Murray’s selection of locale, his scrutineer’s exactitude on matters of the human face and form, and by his quirky, sometimes bizarre sense of humour.

Pleasure takes our hero, if ‘hero’ is the right word, from his childhood, through his post-adolescent travels, to a questioning maturity and to marriage. The journey begins with ‘Master of Ceremonies’, in many ways the most accomplished piece. In mid-Fifties Cumberland the carefully-named Jack Spade lords it over his small household, enchanting his grandson and being unrelievedly cruel to his wife. Murray is unafraid of sentiment, and has a practised eye for the totemic value that can be placed on the most mundane of objects – a box of coloured matches, a valve radio, a presentation clock. The portrait is both affectionate and dismayed, and disturbing in its acknowledgement that cruelty and comfort can make uncomplaining bedfellows. It is from such ritualised humiliation, such suffocating warmth, that characters attempt to escape. Iris, in ‘Ticket to Bombay’, lives in West Cumbria yet daydreams of returning to her Indian boyfriend, Prakash. She takes up Buddhism, Indian cooking and Marathi to aid this return (soon she will ‘paint, sculpt, ride horses ... and maybe not go mad again’). Iris is a loser. But she articulates one of Pleasure’s major themes-the desire for transcendence.

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