Fictbites

Peter Campbell

  • Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 339 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 09 173842 3
  • The Ragged End by John Spurling
    Weidenfeld, 313 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 297 79505 8
  • Higher Ground by Caryl Phillips
    Viking, 224 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 670 82620 0
  • The Flint Bed by Christopher Burns
    Secker, 185 pp, £10.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 436 09788 5
  • Stark by Ben Elton
    Joseph, 453 pp, £13.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7181 3302 1

The transition from mixture to emulsion in fiction (or in mayonnaise) is magical. The process is delicate. When fiction curdles, and globules of pure fact rise to the surface, the dishomogeneity annoys. Some reviewers of Anthony Burgess’s new novel say it has curdled: ‘so let’s say he does know all Walton’s percussion parts by heart, and has the Hebrew or the Russian word for almost anything, is he able to use them to tell a better story?’ I think he is. In Any Old Iron facts and characters stick together well enough for larger themes to develop through them. Burgess’s densely referential style helps this to happen rather in the way a realistic set suits some plays. You do not believe there is an actual town beyond the proscenium but it serves to remind you how complicated a real town is. And the complication has its inherent charm – words and percussion-playing are, after all, interesting in their own right.

The plot sometimes creaks, though no more loudly than John Spurling’s The Ragged End or Ben Elton’s eco-farce Stark. These books try for the global range and include by reference and implication huge volumes of contemporary history. Stories which bring in two world wars or the coming eco-crisis or the sunset of Empire must break unities of space or time. The impulse to attempt them is easy to understand. A few square inches of ivory are too small to encompass the lot of the dead Lebanese and starving Africans who press nightly on the television screen, but telling stories about the global village leads to problems of figure and ground: how to combine the domestic scale with the broad view. Even Christopher Burns’s The Flint Bed, which looks to be going to find its subject in English provincial life, expands (via a plot tied to a photograph from 1975 of desperate refugees fighting to get onto a helicopter lifting off from the American Embassy in Saigon) to include a sense of the wider world and its troubles in its hero’s search for self-knowledge.

Burgess begins with a little metallurgy and quite a lot of history and mythology. A sword, Excalibur perhaps, links up the parts of the novel and is symbolic in its action. A Welshman, David Jones, runs away to sea, survives the sinking of the Titanic, becomes a cook in New York, marries Ludmilla, the daughter of his Russian employer, returns to Wales and the First World War. He is in Ireland during the Rebellion and, because he is posted as dead, his wife goes to Russia and takes in the Revolution. The story is told in language which mimics the rise and fall of a Welsh accent in one place, the word-order of a direct translation from the Russian in another. Where it tells what happened in no voice but the storyteller’s it is thick (over-thick for some) with names and places.

The children of David and Ludmilla, Reginald (Reg), Beatrix (Trixie) and Dan, and the Jewish narrator and his sister Ziphora (Zip, the percussionist who marries Reg), allow the family experience to encompass the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War – as soldier, prisoner or diplomat – terrorism and nationalism in Israel and in Wales. Dan is taken prisoner by the Germans. It is while he is trying to make his way back from the camp that he sees the sword – a relic stolen from Monte Casino. This German loot becomes Russian loot and eventually Welsh loot. One of the good things about the novel is the knockabout which usually accompanies a reappearance of the Relic in the story – like the golden goose in the fairy-tale, it can make those who grab it absurd.

The conclusion seems to be that no crusade is worthy of Arthur’s sword, that injustice can never be avenged and that individuals cannot avoid individual responsibility. Dan, the dull one of the family who sticks to fish (which sticks to him), is shown to be the soundest of them, if a little fey and very smelly. The Christian symbolism of the fish is noted in a jocular aside of Reg’s – which both defuses and reinforces it. Burgess chooses locations for his novel which ensure high production values. Any Old Iron has a cinematic feel which becomes explicit when a character, looking towards the shore from a military transport, sees a pram rolling down the Odessa steps. Gibraltar during the Second World War, a convoy taking displaced Russians home (to be murdered), East Europe as the Russians advance, even Manchester in the Thirties, have the advantage of existing in our imaginations in no other strong form. It is not Reg’s ill-fated attempts to do the dramatic good thing or Trixie’s cool, voracious sexuality, but the back streets of the Rock, an internment camp, and life on the ship carrying the internees back to Russia, which occasion the scenes you remember.

If Burgess’s pudding is over-egged John Spurling’s is the opposite: it would have been improved by more extravagant invention. The stories of a group of young men who find themselves supervising the transfer of British power in an imaginary West African colony (‘Balunda’) in the Sixties are picked up in the Eighties. They have become recognisable types, but are not distinct or amusing or even grotesque enough to make the foreground story of British media life bite. Their faces never replace the mask of the nearest real-life equivalent one gave them as a temporary tag at their first appearance.

There is plenty of detail – of BBC Radio life and Independent Television life, of how it feels to be hounded by the press, of what is eaten and of what galleries are visited (all the exhibitions seem to be real ones). But the characters tend to think with the same voice about things upon which one does not very much want to have their opinion. The Imperial experience is a major theme: one character reads the diary of an ancestor who was in the colonies, participating in the kind of administration which the opening chapter, on the Balunda plebiscite, describes the end of. Two characters have an interest in Lady Butler, the Victorian military painter, and much of the plot gathers around the comical but sinister figure of Colonel Rimington, who stayed on in Balunda after Independence to become a henchman of the new dictator. When he reappears in Europe, with a reputation for shady and very nasty doings, he turns to the lawyer-lush for help and draws him fatally into the mesh of an international conspiracy. This theme of Empire comes into its own at the end of the book-the best part of it – with a fine description of a battle in the Falklands, doubtless made stronger by the fact that reporting of the Falklands war was so restricted that there are few remembered images to compete with.

In The Ragged End Imperial history is a memory leaving a small cloud of guilt on the national consciousness – one quickly blown away by self-righteousness at Falklands time. The colonial impulse is seen at its most brutal in the first part of Caryl Phillips’s Higher Ground, a novel made up of three episodes linked by theme, but not by time, place or characters. In a West African fort, as the slave trade wanes, a black man, a factor despised by both Africans and Europeans, survives because he is useful. Cruelties which destroy the soul of the oppressor and of the oppressed are seen through his eyes; his feelings have been leached out, and his non-person’s view of the bestialities around him has a kind of dulled objectivity. When feeling revives to the point where it leads to action – he takes in a girl whom one of the officers has sadistically tortured – his time in limbo is over. As a result, he too is shipped to the plantations. This first part of Phillip’s novel has no interplay of fact and fiction: it is an icon, showing evil growing out of power, which would feel no more or less true if it was shown to fit exactly or not at all with historical accounts of the slave trade. It is an imaginatively complete and effective creation and, in its evocation of the helplessness of individuals, punishes the spirit of optimism.

The second part of the novel is told in letters written by Rudolph Leroy Williams, doing six-and-a-half-to-life in a US prison for holding up a liquor store. He writes to father, mother, sister, and the leader of a committee set up to help with his defence. The first letter is dated January 1967, when he has been in prison for six years, the last from August 1968. Release seems further off: he is not a good prisoner, he goes on fighting. In prison he reads Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Mao. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the war in Vietnam come as news from outside. He writes of his own frustrations, of Garvey, Paul Robeson and Toussaint. The letters have been through the censor; and many things must therefore be addressed obliquely. As the months pass, the politically conscious character who is making himself physically and mentally strong is subdued by imprisonment: he declines physically and promises not victory but endurance. His mother dies, but a month later the last letter is to her: ‘The days are hard and long. We toil from “can’t see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night. The master is cruel, but nobody knows him better than his slaves.’ He has been forced back to the stubborn resistance of slavery: ‘I have to learn a new language so forgive me if I make errors while attempting to temporarily reclaim our own.’ The sense seems to be that for him endurance must replace hope.

There is no sense of relief lying beyond the story’s end. The final part of Higher Ground, set in post-war London, continues the theme of broken ties, broken families and broken societies. Irina, a Polish Jew who came to England as the war began, dreams in her cold boarding-house bed (she has been ten years in hospital following an attempted suicide) of her childhood, of the sister and parents who were unable to follow her and died in the Holocaust, of her time in a munitions factory, and her bad marriage to a violent man.

She meets Louis, a West Indian, who is about to return home, and who feels that ‘this woman would extend and demand severe loyalty that he could never reciprocate. Not now.’ For he had ‘already decided not to become one of those who expects, like a child expects from a stepmother, but who meanwhile waits as his long fingers turn rusty and his features become contorted into a factory-face.’ Higher Ground is about the destruction of lives, about damage done in one generation being passed on to another. Phillips’s book has an urgency and intensity which demands that you read more: it is not so much a matter of enjoying it as feeling obliged to finish it, to take account of what the voices he has imagined have to say.

Christopher Burns’s hero, Maurice Fretwell, now warden of a nature reserve somewhere on the north-west coast of Britain, is a failed clergyman: a widower, estranged from his hippy daughter and afflicted with regrets about his chilly treatment of his former flock – in particular, his failure to comfort the parents of a murdered child. It is Celia, a reporter from the local paper, who brings him the photograph of the Saigon evacuation. She has had it from Luciano Croft, an American who has dedicated his life, to looking for the parents of his adopted daughter – seen in the photograph as a baby being handed into the helicopter.

Croft wants to find a Vietnamese family he believes to be in England, who (he says) can help him. Fretwell knows the family – he helped settle them when they arrived as refugees – and is unwillingly drawn into the affair. The story moves to a violent climax in which his passions and obsessions wreak destruction. Fretwell is left trying to disentangle how far he was responsible for what happened. The atmosphere of the tale is heavy, and the landscape of dunes and sea is used to emphasise its bleakness. The best part of it is Burns’s working through of Fretwell’s self-examination. But his inner struggles need a better sounding-board than Celia, whose matter-of-fact chiding (‘Maurice, isn’t that the most selfish approach you could take? And don’t you think the remorse and distress caused to the Edmondsons, and maybe to Croft as well, will be infinitely greater than whatever you feel?’) is bathetic. The way Fretwell lets his house and his life be invaded by Croft is, on the other hand, a good study of the dynamics of a destructive relationship, in which the vacuum left by guilt and depression makes one man vulnerable to the force of another’s obsession.

The Flint Bed is a very serious book, Stark a comical one. In both, however, there is a sense that the whole natural world is at the end of its tether. Stark is put together in a series of scenes a few paragraphs or pages long, each with its own title. This is three-minute culture on the page. The print-phobic are told not to worry: ‘this fictbite comes to an end in the foreseeable future.’ Elton provides a relentlessly easy read, and is funniest on language and style – particularly on Australian varieties. It is all done at one pace, a tireless literary dingo-trot which he seems to be able to keep up indefinitely. Here he is on Australia’s naming of its parts:

During the same period, people in the USA were giving places terrifically exciting names like Tombstone, Deadwood, Hangman’s Tree and Death Gulch, but the old Aussies preferred things less colourful. For instance, there lies almost bang in the middle of Australia, one of the largest monoliths in the world. An unfractured mass of glorious red sandstone that rises one and a half kilometres up from the flat desert and descends four kilometres beneath it. It has an astonishing almost symmetrical shape and, according to the light, it changes colour from red to deep cool purple. It is, of course, regarded with mystical awe by all who see it. The early Australians chose to call this wonder Ayre’s Rock after a dull Victorian administrator in a stupid hat – who happened to be a chief secretary of South Australia.

There would be no trouble in sharpening that kind of thing or in lopping off the odd adjective. But that would destroy the amiable voice of the narrator, who can also do a very good imitation of, say, a hippy, and has an eagle eye for the moment when waning attention calls for some action to keep the story on the move. The plot, a blunt instrument, concerns a conspiracy by the world’s wealthiest to do something unspeakable in Western Australia. Their intentions are uncovered by an ad hoc group of environmentalists which includes a Rambo figure who had his balls shot off in Vietnam, and his mind permanently expanded by drugs, a couple of Aborigines – he laconic, she sarcastic and both entirely au fait with who is screwing whom politically – a pretty self-sufficient girl and CD, a young man who believes himself to be much cooler than he is. It is gripping but if you do happen to put it down you realise you have no very serious interest in finding out what happens in the end – whether you stick with it depends on your taste for wisecracks. Elton’s television scripts do not go in for the farce of the exquisitely-timed double-action clockwork sort, and this novel has no Wodehouseian orchestration of action. Moreover, the end is not in question: it is clear early on that unless Elton cheats it must be ecological disaster. He probably believes that is where we are heading, and he is probably right. He is very serious about the ozone layer, the rain forest, acid rain and the death of the oceans and a fair number of the fictbites are in fact nonfictbites about recent real-life abominations. But it would take a Swiftian talent to match this subject-matter, and a good deal more hate of the human race than Elton can muster to be adequate to the realities which underlie his jokes. He is never really outrageous: indeed, for a book about the end of the world, which offers no happy endings, it is a very saucy romp.