26 FEBRUARY 1954, Page 26

• New Novels

LIKE The Palm-Wine Drinkard, its predecessor, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a kind of writing difficult to define and even to describe. At the age of seven, its narrator wanders into ,a hole in a hill, under the impression "that it was an old man's house who was expelled from a town for an offence." This is soon disproved by the appearance of a golden-ghost, a silverish-ghost and a copperish- ghost; and the arrival of Smelling-ghost ("his nose and eyes were very hard to look at as they were very dirty and smelling") puts it beyond doubt that the scene is the mythical Bush of Ghosts. This is a self-consistent world complete with towns, currency, wars, hus- bandry, its own Directorate of Medical Sepices and a special branch of the Methodist Church. There are some ex-human ghosts, but most are non-human living creatures, not, always immortal. In appearance they vary from near-human to such monstrosities as the flash-eyed mother: "Millions of heads which were just like a baby's head appeared on her body. . . . She had a large mouth which could swallow an elephant uncut." It is no surprise to learn that "90% of ghosts hate any of the earthly persons to enter this bush,',' and the narrator, as he wanders in and out of captivity and from one ghost-town to another, is starved, deified, thrust into proximity with mosquitoes, snakes and spiders, confined for long periods to a tree-trunk, a food-bag, a pitcher and an animal's pouch, turned into a horse and a cow, and given a ghost's head in error ("this head was smelling badly") after being decapitated in battle. In'the intervals, however, ho is befriended to the extent of marrying twice and beget- ting a son by the Super-lady, and is almost reluctant to leave the Bush of Ghosts and' return home after twenty-four years.

What sort of book is it, then? In the face of a tissue of unfathom- able African myth and fairy-story, written in a completely new English idiom, for, presumably, a native audience, a European reader will blench at this•question, and only feel a fool if he mutters: "Nightmare . .. primitive unconscious . . . episodic allegory without a key reminiscent of Kafka . . . poetry . . ." Certain emotions can at any rate be identified: physical misery, horror, fear, despair and a unique grotesque humour that seems not to be felt by the author as humour in our sense at all, not as 'relief' or as an indication that human ideas still prevail in his ghost-world, but as just another serious, fantastic and violent effect. Mr. Tutuola's book is a severe test of our originality as readers, of our ability to throw all our preferences and preconceptions out of the window when the need arises. It will probably only go to show that I can't do this if I say that my interest flags when I read something that so rarely evokes anything in life as I know it, and if I anticipate a possible objection by pleading that even misery, pain and the rest cannot be universal and become blurred in a strange context. But this book clearly needs repeated readings before its extraordinariness can be fully noted, let alone mastered, and. there is no doubt of the size of Mr. Tutuola's talent, which makes the average 'modern novel' look jejune and vapid. Try this bit: But as the bush which surrounded this pond was very quiet without any noise of a creature whatever it might be so I began to feel much cold without being cold, and when my heart was not at rest for the quietness of that place then I went to the place that I spread the skin in the sun and began to warm myself in this sun perhaps my body would be at rest, but when there was no change at all until the skin was dried then I took it and left that area as quickly as possible. So I wore it as a cloth, of course, it could only reach from my knees to the waist, so I was going on with it like that.

Black Argosy, a first novel, also has connections with Nigeria, but here the theme is the African in London. The histories of the two central characters, bewildered law student and equally bewildered wide boy, are recounted with a satisfying profusion of incident and detail, and their feelings about the jungle of London and the Africa they have left are realised with remarkable conviction. Mercedes Mackay leans sometimes towards the melodramatic in her com- mentary—knives are rather prone to start glittering evilly and characters to move towards the last dark tunnel leading to the abyss —but her narrative seldom falters and her ear for dialogue is excellent.

I thought at first that Weekend at Hurtmore was going to be a 'woman's novel,' i.e., the sort where you hate all the characters, but it never quite is. The frame implied by the title—the house-party where guests, hosts and children give their various dilemmas an airing—is trite enough, and so is the leading man with his ubiquity, his powerful yet tender hands, and his obsession for "thinking he may be able to do something" for everyone. But here and there are unmistakable signs of a spiteful humour, a hard and sardonic intel- ligence that one longs to see given free play.

The trouble with Naked Canvas is the heroine, Alison ("not a pretty picture," the blurb says). Unengagingly self-centred, feeding with humourless avidity on tension supplied by her own actions or factitiously written in by the author, she gets embroiled in the life of a public school by being the daughter of one masters and the girl-friend of another master and of one of the senior boys, Mailham. The character of Mailham, his relations with his priggish room-mate, and his emotional struggles are so-sympathetically filled in that both he and Mr. Warwick Scott seem to be rather wasting their time on Alison.