Superhistory

Patrick Parrinder

  • Curfew by Jose Donoso, translated by Alfred MacAdam
    Picador, 310 pp, £13.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 330 31157 3
  • War Fever by J.G. Ballard
    Collins, 176 pp, £12.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 00 223770 9
  • Great Climate by Michael Wilding
    Faber, 147 pp, £12.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 14428 4
  • Honour Thy Father by Lesley Glaister
    Secker, 182 pp, £13.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 436 19998 X

All novels are historical novels, as my late teacher, Graham Hough, used to say; but some are more historical than others. Novelists can improve on history, and if they are Science Fiction writers they can anticipate it. History can be invented, but most novelists only do so within strict limits. According to Hough, they would tend to invent a Prime Minister but not a major political party, a provincial town but not a capital city. A writer like Joyce can put together an immensely painstaking reconstruction of the past without linking it in any way to a historical narrative, while other novelists treat strictly contemporary events as history-in-the-making, much as journalists do. Rather like Joyce in Ulysses, Jose Donoso in Curfew tracks his protagonist’s adventures during a 24-hour period in the life of a modern city, but there the resemblances stop.

Recognised as the leading Chilean novelist, Donoso seems to have drawn heavily on his own experience of returning from political exile in the writing of Curfew. The novel describes events in Santiago in 1985, the year in which it was composed (it was first published in Spanish in 1986). Mañungo Vera, a famous revolutionary singer, has been absent from Chile for 13 years, having left the country in 1972 to appear at a peace concert in San Francisco with Joan Baez. Mañungo must be seen as a more fortunate version of Victor Jara, the singer murdered in the aftermath of the military coup which overthrew the Allende regime. Donoso’s protagonist is a former teenage idol who has given up his repertoire of guerrilla and protest songs, and has lost his youthful certainties. He has settled in Paris, he has a wife and a son, and his politics have gone soft.

Mañungo’s return to Santiago coincides with the death and funeral of Matilde Neruda, widow of the great poet who was Chile’s only other modern cultural superstar. For an outsider it is impossible to say how far Curfew’s vivid portrayal of Pablo Neruda’s surviving friends and the members of his entourage constitutes a roman à clef. Many of Donoso’s characters expect to draw either personal gain or political advantage as a result of their association with the dead poet. Don Celedonio and the poetess Fausta dream of setting up a Neruda Foundation to serve as a beacon for subsequent generations, while the various political factions are more concerned with orchestrating the massive funeral procession, which may or may not help to undermine the military dictatorship. Most of these characters have a strong sense of the potential historical significance of their actions, but Donoso gently deflates their pretensions. Whatever their real-life originals, most of these squabbling, down-at-heel literati would be comfortably at home in the pages of Olivia Manning.

To the extent that it offers a kind of instant history, Curfew must already be a period piece. The nightly curfew, with its silence broken by the wailing of sirens and the droning of police helicopters, was lifted before the end of the Pinochet years. Donoso’s tense and intricate plot turns on routine incidents of torture and police brutality which one must hope are now a thing of the past. If Chile is indeed entering a new period of stable democracy, Donoso’s registration of the cowed and vengeful atmosphere of Santiago in the mid-Eighties may itself become a historical resource, once individual memories have faded.

Vengeance is represented here by Judit Torre, a mysterious beauty known as the ‘Chilean Virginia Woolf’, who is the leader of a group of female terrorists bent on killing a member of the security police. Mañungo falls under Judit’s spell and finds himself, within hours of his return, joining the scavengers and thugs lurking in the streets of a wealthy residential district of the city after midnight, at the risk of being shot on sight if he is spotted by the police. Judit, who has been tipped off to watch out for a blue Mercedes, decides that Mañungo will make a useful decoy. The Mercedes turns out to contain a pleasure-seeking couple of off-duty officers, one of whom may have sexually humiliated Judit and tortured her fellow detainees several years before. Mañungo is recognised, and is invited indoors for a drink in exchange for a private command performance; and Judit, still unsure that she has correctly identified her victim, tremblingly reaches for her gun.

Though Judit’s mixture of violence, sexual readiness and high-cultural frigidity owes rather a lot to male fantasy, the night of the curfew combines elements of the political thriller with a degree of witchcraft and a farcical unmasking of daytime identities. It is a rite of passage through which Mañungo has to pass if his return from exile is to lead to a possibility of personal and artistic renewal. Sometime after dawn he finds a temporary resting place in Judit’s apartment, but on the morning of the great funeral they are both caught up in the machinations and petty intrigues of Neruda’s circle. During his lifetime the poet trod a dangerous path between art and Communism, between connoisseurship and ideology, and one of his legacies is a rich collection of books, paintings and manuscripts which both Right and Left would like to get their hands on. Are the letters that Trotsky sent him in the late Thirties as valuable as is rumoured, and could these and other documents play their part in a final discrediting of the Communist cause, and of Neruda with it? Was he, indeed, implicated in Trotsky’s murder? Mañungo tries to preserve his independence from party-political commitment while these and other questions are being debated, but finally, thanks to Judit and to the raffish poet Lopito with whom he renews his acquaintance, he finds himself inescapably, passionately involved. A ‘wicked wizard’ has transformed him into someone who can no longer stand aloof from the Chilean experience.

Mañungo grew up on the fogbound island of Chiloe, a last outpost on the way to the glaciers in the remote south of the country. The islanders are fervent believers in witchcraft, and Mañungo, by becoming a famous musician, has pursued their legend of the Caleuche or ‘ship of art’, with its crew of wizards bound for a distant paradise beyond the ice-bound horizon. Only one chapter of Curfew is set among the witches of Chiloe, and Donoso manages to employ the notion of metamorphosis or magical transformation while sedulously avoiding the style of unrestrained ‘magic realism’ that we have come to expect of Latin American novels. ‘It was so easy to imitate Garcia Marquez, and everyone was doing it,’ the narrator remarks of the mourners gathered at the Nerudas’ house: but the scene from which this comment is taken is less reminiscent of Marquez than of Balzac and Galsworthy. Just as Chile is still perhaps the least American of Latin American countries, so Donoso’s art is richly crafted and somewhat old-fashioned, like a racy European grande dame from a previous era.

The notions of the ‘ship of art’ and of the curfew as a theatre or zone of transformations may not impede Donoso’s fictional realism, but they do mark the difference between the novel and journalism or documentary writing. Equally important, in a fiction which often stresses the Lilliputian scale of Chilean culture, is Donoso’s use of the figure of the historical microcosm. In a moving final scene, he takes us with Judit’s, Lopito’s and Mañungo’s children to visit the ‘toy country’ of Chile in Miniature, a tourist attraction in a Santiago park which transforms Pinochet’s country into a natural paradise of mountains, beaches, forests and deserts. The architects of Chile in Miniature, Donoso explains, had to leave out the poor and monotonous and uninteresting areas of the country, since there was not enough room: ‘not everything can fit into a miniature, and unpleasant things should be left out.’ Donoso, who is adequately though far from faultlessly served by his translator, has put back fear and corruption and many unpleasant things, but his novel remains an enchanted space.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction maps a very different historical frontier. His last collection of short stories was Myths of the Near Future (1982), and in several pieces in this new collection he again takes up his favourite stance as a historian of the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. Ballard’s reports from the future include a picture of Europe on the point of being overrun by totalitarian sun-worshippers (the French bare their massed nipples, and the British their ‘fearsome buttocks’, in confrontations with the riot police), and a ‘Secret History of World War Three’ in which we learn that the war ran for four minutes on 27 January 1995, but nobody really noticed. The metaphor of the theme park serves Ballard’s purposes, just as it serves Donoso’s. Europe’s destiny is to become ‘The Largest Theme-Park in the World’, while another story, ‘Memories of the Space Age’, is a sort of grand theme-park of the Ballardian imagination, arousing intense nostalgia if one has followed his work. The abandoned space gantries of Cape Canaveral haunted by redundant ex-astronauts, the silted-up beach hotels and vintage flying-machines, the slowing-down of time and the imminence of entropic decay, the landscapes from Tanguy or Max Ernst – all these things, purporting to speak to us of future history, can more plausibly be viewed as Ballard’s version of the myth of the Fall.

Ballard celebrated his 60th birthday this year, and his view of what is in store for his fictional protagonists has scarcely changed in the last three decades. ‘Memories of the Space Age’ predicts a growing public awareness that ‘man had committed an evolutionary crime by travelling into space, that he was tampering with the elements of his own consciousness.’ The same message could be found in some of his earliest stories, notably ‘The Reptile Enclosure’. If, despite his bestselling Empire of the Sun, Ballard seems essentially a short-story writer rather than a novelist, it is because of his incessant, unashamed repetition of themes and settings, which suggests the work of a painter (such as one of his beloved Surrealists) rather than a narrative artist. His stories stay in the mind like pictures at a grand retrospective, differing from one another in their superficial choice of colour or form but tenaciously exploring a small, interlocking set of artistic possibilities. The personal style is utterly distinctive, but the canvases when hung together look remarkably alike. Certain simple technical devices recur – for example, the sentences beginning with a present participle which too often impart a leaden rhythm to his prose.

The danger of this art is self-parody, but Ballard is often at his most effective when he is parodying other people’s styles. He frequently uses the diary or logbook as a narrative form, and in War Fever he develops an incisive vein of political satire. The volume also contains witty Post-Modernist texts, with stories taking the form of an index, of a series of footnotes, and of the answers to a non-existent questionnaire. Most of these pieces are like fireworks which flare up briefly, transforming everything around them with their strange light, and War Fever provides ample testimony to Ballard’s continuing fertility within the closed field of his obsessive themes and ideas.

Perhaps the central figure in these stories, as in earlier works such as ‘The Terminal Beach’ and the novella Concrete Island, is the latter-day Robinson Crusoe, a voluntary castaway or recluse who is also an incipient megalomaniac. One of the protagonists in War Fever sets out to pare away the elements of bourgeois life by the simple expedient of never again leaving his suburban house. After he has emptied the freezer and lived for some months on a diet of stray dogs and an unfortunate TV repairman, he discovers that his house has grown infinitely large and that he himself is a new Columbus on the verge of a unique revelation. Another Crusoe-like character is Johnson, the self-styled ‘Captain’ of a cargo ship crammed with illegal chemical waste which has been abandoned by the rest of its crew. Johnson runs aground on a deserted Caribbean island and allows his cargo to leak slowly into the lagoon. The island is a former Second World War garbage dump which Johnson, by this artificial transfusion, converts into a superabundant tropical paradise. Soon he believes he is the father of a new advanced species, which is growing wings in readiness to take over the globe. I would guess that this strongly Wellsian story is early work, though no date is given. Certainly it is not out of place in this austerely unified collection, which will be compulsory reading for Ballard’s many admirers.

Great Climate, Michael Wilding’s collection of stories written in the last two decades, has a much more haphazard air. In several pieces, Wilding, a British-born writer teaching at the University of Sydney, develops the Science Fiction idea of time delay, which gives rise to some intriguing logical puzzles. A man recovering from an accident which had temporarily annihilated his senses finds he can only experience bodily sensations three hours after the stimuli that produced them. Another story portrays two lovers separated by a time-gulf of hundreds or thousands of years. Then there is ‘The West Midland Underground’, a whimsical anachronism for which the narrator, who may be a writer, an industrial archaeologist or simply a crank, searches in the neighbourhood of Worcester, where canals, not underground railways, cut across the landscape. The stories set in Australia make up a kind of contemporary writer’s rake’s progress, in a drink, drug and sex-laden atmosphere heavily reminiscent of the Sixties. Since most of the Australian stories were first published in 1972, their appearance here is another species of anachronism or historical delay. Among the good things of life, Wilding suggests in ‘The West Midland Underground’, are fantasy, hope and the opportunity of talking to oneself. That perhaps catches the note of a lively, uneven and studiedly offbeat collection.

Lesley Glaister’s compellingly imagined first novel is a family saga with a difference. Set in the Cambridgeshire Fens, this is the story of four sisters who spend their lives buried away in an isolated cottage, thanks to the will of their tyrannical father. The family surname is Pharoah, no less, but then their Fenland neighbours sport such gargoyle-like names as Howgego and Gotobed. Honour Thy Father has a strongly physical impact, evoking the damp, the squalor and the nauseating stench of the Pharoahs’ dilapidated hovel with an uncomfortable directness. The dirt left to fester in the cottage is part of the sisters’ exorbitant but belated rebellion against their father, a dour East Anglian who liked everything to be kept in its proper place, the water in its squared-off dykes, the wet kept apart from the dry. His wife (Cockney and suspected of drowning herself) and his daughters have a perverse liking for playing with water, and finally the house itself seems to collapse under the combined onslaught of torrential rain and the bursting of the dykes. The narrative spans some sixty years, since the sisters were locked away soon after the First World War, and Milly, supposedly the most normal of them, tells her story in the nick of time before senility and the rising floodwaters put an end to their Trappist existence.

It couldn’t happen here? In some Third World countries, innumerable women are said to spend their lives in purdah, condemned to childlessness, slavery and ignorance. Honour Thy Father imputes a similar degree of repression to English provincial Puritanism: The father’s motive is literally to force his daughters to remain pure, to avoid the contamination of immorality he associates with their mother. Milly slowly and unwillingly reveals the family’s guilty secrets, one after the other. Two of the sisters, known as Ellenanesther, are psychopathic near-Siamese twins, while the third has borne a monstrous offspring (George, a perpetual prisoner whose bellowings are heard from time to time in the cellar) as a result of her illicit relationship with the father. There is some vagueness about the ties which prevent Milly, who was once desperate to get away, from leaving the house. Legal documents and bank statements are waved in the reader’s direction, but we do not get to read them. However, at the level of Gothic melodrama and of a lurid repressed sexuality reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm, very little is missing. The mere action of killing a wasp at the breakfast table becomes fully expressive of the father’s savagery. The next minute, Milly is having ‘the thing the bull had done to Barley’ done to her by a neighbour’s son in the barn, and later the father’s body will be dismembered and burnt in the same barn, while Barley the cow dies of neglect and is left to rot. And so it goes.

The landscape of the Fens has recently inspired a major example of phantasmagoric fictional history, Graham Swift’s Waterland. His novel is framed by a series of history lessons in a modern comprehensive school, and by curiosity about the past as a place not only of sin and shame but of bizarre stories and agreeable surprises. Glaister, on a very different note, shows a sinister, inbred, doomed way of life in which there is no forgiving, no forgetting and no laughter. A novelist to watch, she leads us irresistibly into a mad, bad, angry world in which – while her sister is going into labour – Milly reflects that ‘what she was doing was as base and mindless as what the animals did; she was about to give birth to a bastard.’ One could find a broadly comic, cavalier treatment of this theme in some well-known English writing, but not here.