1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 23

Tropic of Boredom

The President. By Miguel Angel Asturias. Trans- 30s.)

'THERE exists • a curious book by an American anarchgt, Benjamin R. Tucker, entitled INSTEAD OF A BOOK BY A MAN TOO BUSY TO WRITE ONE.

The title describes my new-found situation to a T.' The 'new-found situation' is Henry Miller's initial decision to devote his life to writing, but Tucker's title might serve as an appropriate epigraph to most of Miller's work, including Plexus. He has the basic equipment of a good writer: a greedy delight in words, wide, indis- criminate reading, rich experience and a good memory. But he refuses to apply this equip- ment to the production of books which have artistic form, which contain within them the reasons why they are so, and not otherwise. 'Instead' he writes the Miller saga, a series of non-books, hunks of hacked-off experience slapped raw and bleeding on the reader's plate. Not true fictions, they are not acceptable as auto- biography either, since one cannot trust him to tell the truth.

Miller's work represents the extreme of roman- tic anarchism in literature—and of romantic arrogance. too, for there is an implicit assump- tion in all of it that we will find his personal life and personal fantasies as fascinating as he obviously does. When he is concerned with sexuality the assumption holds, for our curiosity on this subject .is insatiable; but when he deserts the ever-interesting topic he can be a bore. Plexus, the second volume of the Rosy Cruci- fixion trilogy, dealing with Miller's pre-Euro- pean days, it is boring for long stretches, but not only because it is comparatively chaste (there is but a scattering of four-letter words, and the famished nymphomaniac who is his speciality among characters makes only two or three ap- pearances). Plexus belongs to Miller's post-war work in which the narcissistic impulse always behind his writing has lost the pace, energy and concentration of the `Tropic' books, and de- generated into a garrulous, self-congratulatory nostalgia. Of course, there are splendid nuggets to be sifted from the dross. But such sifting seems to me to be the artist's, not the reader's, responsibility.

The President is the work of a Guatemalan exile, and is based on President Cabrera's brutal dictatorship of Guatemala earlier in this cen- tury. First published in 1946, it has acquired a high international reputation, and its tardy trans- lation into English is to be welcomed, for it is certainly a remarkable novel. As a denunciation of dictatorship it is immediately effective, creat- ing a convincing and horrific world of fear, suspicion and cruelty in which the individual's consciousness of innocence or guilt is absurdly irrelevant to his chances of survival. It is written in densely metaphorical style, and employs all kinds of experimental literary devices. The sheer virtuosity of the writing often takes one's breath away, but one cannot entirely suppress a sus- picion that much of it is decoration imposed upon a fundamentally crude formulation of the moral and political issues involved. The minor characters, the beggars, soldiers, shopkeepers, are beautifully sketched, but the main characters, the Byronic hero, his beloved, and the President himself, are cardboard figures of romance and

melodrama. It is impossible not to compare the novel with Nostromo, and impossible not to recognise how far it falls short of Conrad's masterly study in political squalor and dis- illusion.

The first sixty pages of Break 50 Kill are splendid. The artist, Clem, inhabits a house in Blackheath which is physically and spiritually rotten: it is riddled with woodworm, dry-rot and all the other diseases that houses are heirs to, and it is haunted by the vicious ghost of a model murdered in the attic by a, Victorian painter. The effectiveness of these early pages derives from a subtle interweaving of the domes- tic and the supernatural, the comic struggle of Clem to preserve the crumbling fabric of his home, and the sinister apparitions in the attic which lure 'unsuspecting plumbers to their doom. The apparently clumsy oratio obliqua style cleverly enhances both the comedy and the spookiness. But soon the fantastic elements in the novel take complete control: the ghost takes possession of the body of a young girl and wreaks havoc in a wider field. A character called Jones, who alone knows the secret of a murder committed with a billiard ball (hence the title), is driven insane by the knowledge and inhabits a private, after-the-Bomb world in which Clem's house again provides the setting for night- marish horror. The fine novel promised by the first sixty pages disappears in a welter of Gothic extravagance. The climax, in which Jones mur- ders one of the cat-children to which his wife has given birth due to genetic mutation, is one 'of the most irresponsibly revolting scenes it has been my misfortune to encounter. The book is garnished with many striking and obsessive illustrations.

After three books which set out to batter the reader into submission by a furious display, of bizarre incident, and to bury him under an ava- lanche of words, it is a relief to turn to a work of professional polish, tact and elegance. All the stories in Powers of Attorney concern a large New York legal firm, and most of them revolve around a conflict between the ideology of the Organisation Man, incarnated in the senior partner, Henry Tilney, and various eccentrics, idlers and nonconformists, the relics of a more easy-going, less efficient era. The predictability of Auchincloss's final endorsement of the Organi- sation Men over the others is perhaps a little disturbing, but he usually contrives to give the former a scare, a paralysing moment of self- doubt. Technically, the stories are models of how to create a world with a minimum of fuss.