12 JULY 2003, Page 40

Books on tape

Robert Cooper

Listeners will enjoy Sam Dastor's splendid reading of A Passage to India far more than Dr. Aziz would relish a return visit. Clearly Dastor is the Voice of India, having also rattled through audio renderings of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet and J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur. It's no surprise he's in demand, although it takes a while to acclimatise fully to his clipped, formal style, reminiscent of those newsreel commentators. But a few spins of the tape later you will be flabbergasted that all the voices are Dastor's. For instance, his portrayal of the leading females, Mrs Moore and her potential daughter-in-law Adela Quested, is uncannily female and totally convincing.

The characters are so vivid that I feel I have just viewed a much improved remake of David Lean's 1984 film of Forster's last novel (also Lean's final picture). This one is as the author intended — as the tape cover says 'nothing altered, nothing taken out'. The story revolves around the friendship between Dr Aziz, a Moslem medical officer, and Mr Fielding, Principal of the College in Chandrapore. The East/'West divide was never wider than when Fielding breaks ranks to side with Aziz, following his alleged impropriety with Miss Quested on the calamitous expedition to the Marabar Caves.

Close your eyes (poor advice for driverlisteners) and Dastor's voice for Fielding could be that of Sir Alec Guinness. So much so that I checked the film cast. Guinness is on board, but plays the eccentric Professor Godbole. (James Fox was Fielding). So not only is Dastor a fine reader but he's also recast the movie. Perhaps Sam Dastor's finest vocal acrobatics are reserved for the vitriolic civil surgeon Major Callendar. Civil? Not when he berates and humiliates his wretched subordinate Aziz who, compassionate even in grim adversity, absorbs Callendar's verbal onslaughts with good humour. Forster's wit is razor-sharp and the reader's delivery is spot on.

A drawback with tape is replaying favourite segments; like a needle in a haystack they are impossible to find with any degree of accuracy. Maybe CDs are the solution — especially now that most new cars come with CD player and not a tape deck. Sadly A Passage to India is only available on tape. Another impediment is to own a decrepit car with a tape deck prone to over-heating. When this occurs — it happened to me en route to the Marabar picnic — a most convincing fragrance of maple syrup wafts from somewhere undiscovered — and the tape stops, extending the listening time by days. On this occasion the diversion was a pleasure. The maple syrup mystery remains unsolved.

A Passage to India by E. M Forster, unabridged. 11 hours 12 minutes, 10 cassettes, Cover to Cover, read by, Sam Dastor. £32.99.