The Central Image
The Coat. By Hugo Charteris. (Collins, 21s.) Hero on a Donkey. By Miodrag Bulatovic. (Seeker and Warburg, 35s.) Guilt. By Laszlo Nemeth. (Peter Owen, 35s.) Trawl. By B. S. Johnson. (Seeker and Warburg, 27s. 6d.) Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl. By Alison Smith. (Chatto and Windu% 25s.) HUGO CHARTEIUS'S new novel, The Coat, is cer- tain to confirm his reputation for virtuosity and originality. As in his earlier work, the vision is oblique but never evasive, and if we sense that a distorting mirror is being held up to life, it is ilone the less one whose every surface is expertly moulded to project the bizarre faces of reality which might otherwise elude the casual observer.
Almost parable-like in its apparent simplicity, The Coat describes two days in the life of Tun Loxley, second son of the Minister of Fuel, Lord Bewick, a millionaire entrepreneur applying the tactics of hard-sell to the 1941 war economy. Appalled and defeated by his older son's decision to join the RAF, Lord Bewick determines to evacuate Tim to America—not merely to protect the family line, but also its fortunes; Tim is whisked away from Eton and into a tailor-made life-jacket with a quarter of a million pounds worth of jewels sewn into the lining. It is the pitiful gesture of a vain and frustrated man who excels at manipulating the masses but is incap- able of winning the love or respect of his own family.
Tim is accompanied to Liverpool by his step-. mother Polly—a flamboyant, emotionally promis- cuous but frigid fancy piece who launches the boy on a series of comic misadventures with a race- track bum and his fanatically romantic niece. As they await the departure of Tim's ship from Liverpool, Polly is tantalising and frustrating one of her numerous 'lovers,' and Tim proceeds to lose his fabled coat in an air raid. In an opera bouffe conclusion the uneasy status quo is estab- lished once more, and each of the characters returns to his own peculiar brand of quiet or strident desperation. The fate of the adultsneither surprises nor disturbs, but Tim is to be forever warped by the coat of prestige and money and ill-faith which he has been forced to don. There is so much humour and vitality and compassion in this book that its grimly sardonic conclusion is hardly oppressive: the sureness with which Charteris permits his central image, without elaboration, to work for him is an unmistakable sign of his matured competence as a novelist.
Yet another—and stylistically the richest— vision of war is presented in Miodrag Bulatovic's Hero on a Donkey, a novel whose blend of gusto, suffering, and savagery is almost mediaeval, but whose total impression is chillingly modern. Bula- tovic sets his story in a small Montenegrin town occupied, in 1943, by Italian 'liberators' who spend less time worrying about the Communist enemies without than with the boredom within the town, which they resolutely fight with por- nography, whores, and alcohol. One man rises up to challenge this pointless absurdity: Grubi Malic, former bar-cum-brothel proprietor, pro- ceeds to remake himself in the image of the vil- lage Communist, but his rebellion slots itself into the inhabitants' numbed minds as yet another weary incongruity. With Kafkaesque persistence the world destroys Malic by relentlessly refusing -to recognise his existence.
Despite its vivid accumulation of detail and superb portrayal of character, Laszlo Nemeth's Guilt never achieves the sustained power which made Revulsion such a distinctive and memor- able novel. Nemeth charts the life of a young Hungarian boy who leaves his native village shortly after the First World War and attempts to make his own way in the economically and spiritually depressed city of Budapest. His ideals are gradually stripped away in the sub-human world in which he must manipulate for survival, and his experience of the bourgeois life to which he once aspired is hardly compensation for his loss. With naive understanding of its sources and scant hope of lightening his burden, he shoulders a guilt he did nothing to incur except through his determination to make a place for himself in the world. Like Bulatovic's study of a Montenegrin
village, Guilt is concerned only on one level with ideological process; more significantly, both novels present grimly disillusioned images of the hero in the anonymous modern state, and it hardly comes as a surprise that Bulatovic's has been banned in Yugoslavia.
In Trawl a 'pleasure-tripper' pays for a berth on a fishing boat bound for the Barents Sea; as he watches the crew haul in their nets, he is also trawling up memories of his own past, and the net of memory often seems indiscriminate in its catches. Tormented by seasickness and agonised by his past, he none the less moves slowly, almost imperceptibly toward a resolution which frees him 'to be what I may be,' and that freedom constitutes a remarkable triumph over his own self-doubt and insecurity. B. S. Johnson builds his monologue with brilliant intensity and with a human urgency which demands that we take this slender book far more seriously than its colour- less and frequently self-indulgent hero would otherwise seem to merit.
Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl almost succeeds as a tour de force, and even where it falters by imposing too great a burden on sheer technique, it still impresses as a first novel of far more than ordinary accomplishment. A young girl lies in bed constructing elaborate daydreams to counteract the grey, middle-class reality of her life, and as her own knowledge and experience broaden, she abandons the childish trappings of historical romance in favour of 'modern' dramas of increasing ominous psychological complexity. Alison Smithson has exercised considerable ingenuity in evoking the uneasy boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the novel's surrealistic conclusion is shock- ingly but convincingly stark.