24 MARCH 1979, Page 18


Poetic precision, prose breadth

Paul Ableman

The Coup John Updike (Deutsch £4.95)

This strikes me as the finest American novel since Lolita, a work which is, of course, about America rather than by an American. John Updike is as 'American as apple pandowdy' but The Coup, to balance the ambiguity, is set chiefly in Africa. Perhaps partly because of its exotic perspective the book marks a significant stage in the evolution of American literature and, undoubtedly, in the career of Updike.

I take especial pleasure in the appearance of this highly entertaining novel since I have long argued that the way ahead for fiction is to fuse the precision of poetry with the breadth of prose. Updike has done just that and produced a masterpiece. Moreover, I have long lamented the parochialism of (especially English) fiction in which no hint of contemporary social, scientific and political reality flaws the anodyne surface and here, as if to redeem the reputation of the novel as an active force in the modern world, is a magnificent work woven from current experience.

First, to reassure readers rightly wary of prose that presumptuously decks itself in poetic finery inappropriate to its sterner task, this book is neither a prose poem nor an example of the atrocious hybrid 'poetic prose'. It is not beautified. It does not resonate to rhythms and verbal ingenuities that clog the narrative. Its prose is true prose, harnessed to the proper fictional tasks of propelling the story, embodying character and place, and exploring ideas. But it is exact prose, in the way that the prose of Isaac Babel, William Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov is exact and thus it fruitfully exploits the one element of poetry, fine definition, which can brace the limp monody that usually passes for narrative today and purge it of clichés.

Nabokov, who is probably the closest to Updike in style and vision, wrote with European subtlety, fortified by native lyricism and irony. Updike has almost certainly learned from the dead master but has gone on to perfect an individual style that is flexible, deft and witty. Compare the following passages: Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. (Nabokov) Kush is around us in these hints, these airy coded bulletins, but the crush of present reality — the oblique, temperate sun, the sensational proximity of the sea—, renders these clues no more than fragile scraps of wreckage that float to the surface . . . (Updike) Updike has not the sheer dramatic power of Nabokov nor the profound compassion (albeit veined with cruelty in Nabokov's case) which characterises the very greatest writers. Moreover, Updike, unlike Nabokov at his best, never quite performs that wondrous feat of making language absolutely congruent with life. This is partly because the American is sometimes guilty of the over-elaboration which blurs the line. For example, a character glances 'at the black face of his wristwatch, as if space as well as time were packed into its shallow depths, like life in a coil of DNA'. The final simile unseats the image. But comparison of the two styles is not all to Nabokov's advantage. Updike has more flair and boldness. Negatively, he is not intermittently stung, and thus distracted from his literary task, by the resentments of the dispossessed emigre. For these, and other, reasons, The Coup has a majestic serenity and perfection of form that Nabokov never quite achieved.

Updike has assumed, for this fictitious memoir, told partly in the first person and partly, at the hero's whim, in the third, the name and personality of an African dictator. Colonel Ellelloü (a cognomen which is Berber for Freedom) rules Kush, the original of which, judging from its alleged topography, politics and colonial origins, would seem to be the huge, peanutproducing, semi-desert state of Chad. Ellellou, like many real African leaders, first tastes power as a non-commissioned officer serving, in his case, the French. He fights yellow men in Indo-China but baulks at turning his gun on fellow blacks, deserts and ultimately reaches Franchise, Wisconsin as a student. America endows him with an education, the Muslim faith (initially in its parodic 'black' form), a second wife and a loathing for consumer capitalism. He returns to his mineral wastes and ingratiates himself with the barbaric, but subtle, imported king from the Southern jungle.

Upon the withdrawal of the French, Ellel!oil achieves power and thereupon directs heterogeneous Kush, whose inhabitants grade chromatically from Tuareg white through various shades of Arab and Berber brown to Central African black, towards an austere and impractical amalgam of Marxism and Mohammedanism. Then drought strikes. Children, camels and the colonial chestnut trees perish. Ellelloü personally strikes off the old king's head to propitiate Roul, the Desert Devil, but no rain falls. In his quixotic devotion to an ideal of selfsufficiency, he burns relief supplies (and the American supplier with them) and Wanders amongst his people in disguise seeking guidance. Behind his back, his chief minister starts eagerly laying the foundations of an oil economy and consumer society. It should be hard to identify with Ellellou. He is brutal and self-righteous, either impo tent or exorbitant with his four wives and his concubine. But he is also essentially democratic, idealistic and devoid of selfimportance. He hazards his own life as cheerfully as anyone else's. Ultimately, we develop considerable affection for this small, intrepid black Canute striving to stem, in one of the most arid countries on earth, the inexorable tide of progress. The problem of identification is mitigated by the nature of the book. If Lolita is a naturalistic allegory, The Coup is a naturalistic satire. Political and social events, as well as the touch, taste and feel of things, are vividly rendered but are not essential. Ideas are. 'Some of our Sufis have divulged that at the height of purity in which Godhead dwells, existence and the lack of it are trivial quibbles . . . '. Creeds and sects, Africa and America, communism and capitalism, the landscape itself, become metaphors for social and spiritual states and The Coup ultimately reveals itself as more akin to 18th-century metaphysical, than 19th-century naturalistic, fiction. The characters, inspite of their verbal virtuosity, are fully-realised and credible. an impressive feat considering they range from American bourgeoisie, through Russian military, to African peasants. In spite of being a nation of immigrants, or perhaps, defensively, as a result of American has been traditionally xenophobic. No matter how travelled, and professionally sophisticated, the ruling elite, the nation's consciousness has continued to divide the world into Americans and others. It scans with, at best, patronising tolerance and, at worst, brutal contempt, the behaviour and conventions of lesser breeds beyond the constitution. The virulent American vocabulary of racial contemPt makes our 'wogs' seem like an affectionate nickname. Some American writers have, of course, been tolerant of foreign ways and even wistfully envious of certain aspects of European and, more recently, Far Eastern culture but their work Proclaims in its social and cultural assumptions an unbreachable gulf. The conventional role of the American abroad has been to rampage and enslave the comical, tradition-bound natives with anarchic Yankee exuberance. Even the invented Africa of so humane a writer as Saul Bellow, no less than that of the inhumane William Burroughs, is largely vaudeville. The Coup should mark the end of this 'wisecrack Raj'. In this work, Updike displays the inhabitants of the world as existing on the same plane and, bar cultural differences, woven of the same fibre. Social historians of the future may well conclude that this book signified a new maturitY in the political consciousness of America. Literary critics will certainly go on regarding it as a superb work of art.