Other People

Dinah Birch

  • The Middleman, and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee
    Virago, 197 pp, £11.95, June 1989, ISBN 1 85381 058 4
  • The Burning Boys by John Fuller
    Chatto, 128 pp, £10.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3464 X
  • Termination Rock by Gillian Freeman
    Pandora, 182 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 04 440352 6
  • Blackground by Joan Aiken
    Gollancz, 254 pp, £11.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 575 04502 7

What do the lives and thoughts of other people feel like? We’ll never really know, but fiction offers as good an approximation of knowing as we’re likely to come across. That absorbing illusion of a world elsewhere, with its promised distraction from the irksomeness of our own reality, has always been the most seductive reason for picking up novels and short stories. But like all pleasurable diversions, it has to be paid for. The practice of narrative has a hard history of moral ambition, and is as much concerned with what people ought to be as with what they are. Writers tend to agree that the two conditions rarely coincide. There isn’t a more complete guide to the ubiquity of human failure, cruelty and stupidity than the one you’ll find sitting on the fiction shelves of any bookshop. No matter how exotic their settings, or bizarre the doings of their characters, the lessons of novelists follow disconcertingly familiar patterns. The cumulative implications are clear: people’s lives have more in common than we might like to suppose.

Confronted with this unsettling evidence, we’re usually quick to shelter behind cultural complacency. Challenge is turned into reassurance with the assumption that others sin and suffer because differences in time, class, sex, race or nationality make them different (and inferior) in essence. In any case, we needn’t take fictional people too seriously because they are, after all, unreal. Their mishaps can confirm our own sense of safety. No writer is less willing to permit the solace of these soothing reflections than Bharati Mukherjee. The Middleman, and Other Stories, her forceful new collection, engages with a disturbing diversity of racial and cultural confrontations. Their shifting designs repeatedly juxtapose the cultural relativity of belief and judgment with unchanging experiences of loss, contamination and endurance. The bewildering ordeals of her characters, as they move through alien habitats, are presented with an intensity that makes it impossible to sustain a comfortable distinction between our own situation and what they have to tell us about inescapable insecurities.

Risk and flux make up the substance of these stories. Nothing is taken for granted. Most of them are written in the first person, their language dense with knowing reference to the specific items of information that structure and interpret the instability of lives on the move. Mukherjee’s prose is textured with names: people, places, products. This eclectic body of knowledge, cynical and streetwise, pulls us into her restless narratives. The stories list places we might know, cars we could drive. Anyone might encounter the brands of tea or alcohol (served, perhaps, with ReaLemon) that keep these fractured castaways going: so, too, their varieties of adversity and insight could be visited on us at any time.

The wary ‘Middleman’ of the title story provides a controlling image for the collection. Alfie Judah (‘of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad – and now Flushing, Queens – Judahs’) is a survivor, making his tentative way among the political corruptions and uncertainties of a turbulent South American state. He has taken cover with a dishonest magnate, whose voluptuous and despised wife Maria is eventually to wipe out her husband together with the whole of his rickety empire. Alfie Judah, caught in the middle of their destructive enmity, manages another scarcely creditable survival. He reflects on his ex-protector’s defiant death: ‘I know I would scream. I know I am no hero. I know none of this is worth suffering for, let alone dying for.’ He plans his getaway: ‘There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen.’ Alfie makes it his obstinate business to profit from alienation.

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