14 JULY 1961, Page 23

Walking Wounded

My Master Columbus. By Cedric Belfrage. (Seeker and Warburg, I8s.) THERE are two brilliant stories in Women on the Road, and one which is rather elongated, though good in parts. In the first, an old bag of a prostitute, travelling from village to village in her jingling painted mule cart, encounters a young prostitute—no, a young would-be prosti- tute. In the second, a child is left by her parents to look after the other children in an abandoned house where building lots are for sale—'Nettles grew in the empty lots, which were like a vast meadow.' The neighbours steal Ericas coal, her corn meal. She puts a red ribbon in her hair and takes a sergeant, and then others. 'The first time, with that sergeant, she had thought she was being cut with a knife right in her living flesh. . . . From her own pain, she had quickly received full confirmation that whatever she had begun to do, or to let be done to her, was truly earning a living.'

Each of these stories contains a simpleton in whom the accepted degradation of society is focused—without comment, since the compas- sion is in the telling. Some manage, some don't: look at them, look again at the child Erica walk- ing back from the big, bright Co-op, carrying coffee and sardines, 'with her legs spraddled wide.' The stories are terrible, comic, and palp- able: colours are to be seen, surfaces touched. They are by a considerable artist, one of those modern Italians (others are Vasco Pratolini, Pavese and Carlo Levi) who offer, with style, form, density and sophisticated lyricism, a humaneness which is uncommon and acceptable. These writers are honoured too little.

My Master Columbus is a piece of pseudo- historical fun, also a tract or a fable. The great pinkskin reaches the New World in 1492, and acquires a native interpreter, who tells us about the oddity of pinkskins. An old device. This native speaks both as an adopted Spaniard and a guileless savage. '1 felt sad about them being savages because they smelled so sweet and looked so healthy, graceful and gay.' But he speaks well, in plenty of rococo colour, without farce or flat- ness, his manipulator having an anthropological, coloured-feather feeling about him I liked, and maintaining irony and inventiveness rather well.

Reviewers have spoken well of Miss Jon Godden's 'poetic' quality. Told in Winter says that a writer (successful) lives in a secret house in the woods, wears a velvet coat, is served by his ex-batman (who has a damaged face), grows orchids, and is adored by Sylvie, an Alsatian bitch. It snows. A girl arrives, unwanted, in a red car. Snow, more snow. Snowed-up love; and the bitch will try to stay in the room while they make it. Jealousy all round. Love is defeated by ruthless art in velvet. I did not know that such warmed-up honeydew could still be written, or published.

Art also foozles Mr. Priestley, in his thirty- seventh book, which is a world conspiracy yarn —yes, a yarn—about Them and 'we simple cods.'

The narrating cod is a painter. He would sooner be painting—of course—but whisks himself on to the trail of cold Saturnians, to Peru, Chile, Australia. On page 27 a Russian comes in through the books on the wall—'I knew at once he was a Russian.' He doesn't appear again until page 102. On page 29 the simple narrating cod is kissed (still in the library) by a Countess Nadia, who has just remarked, `So,' with a full stop on either side. 'It was a long kiss with everything there is to know about sex implied in it.' On page 112 the cod begins to admire the young heroine, on the edge of a swimming-pool in Peru, 'with everything showing but nipples and pubic hair, she was just about every sensible man's idea of what Woman ought to be.' Page 120 they spend together in bed. But still nothing has happened, though intimations about Them and their cold, secret springs of conspiracy have increased.

On page 143 the kissing countess reappears, in Chile. On page 159 a little something does occur. The cod gets a knock (so is balked of some bed with Nadia). The narrative, if that term can pos- sibly be applied, bogs again; and on page—but really I needn't push through Mr. Priestley's cotton-wool all the way to the unmasking of Them (coupled with some archetypal images). Embarrassingly almost-up-to-date about Art and Good Causes, embarrassingly out-of-date as a piece of Buchan, without Buchan's tension, and with a mystique of Art and the People in place of that Scotch snob's mystique of Chequers and the Establishment, this is a damned silly book. It would be easy to explain its amateurism (in- side—the surface looks professional) and its staggering incompetence. It would take longer, and wouldn't be worth while, to explain the qualities (added to bounce and bonhomie) which make it nasty as well.