26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 40

A diet of hatred and revenge

Margaret Forster

MONTENEGRO by Starling Lawrence Black Swan, £6.99, pp. 410 Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia . . . is this a news report? No, it's a novel, and the fact that all the place names in it have a depressing ring to them due to horrific contemporary events is entirely coincidental. The story is set in the Balkans at the beginning of this century, and con- cerns an Englishman, one Auberon Har- well, who is travelling through the area posing as a botanist, but in reality spying for an aristocratic patron who wants reports on the political situation. Harwell, a naive young man, very much a product of his class and time, is excited at the adven- tures he is sure lie ahead of him, and makes comparisons before long between himself and the heroes of Rider Haggard and Kipling.

Disillusionment is quickly upon him. As he journeys through Montenegro, dominat- ed by the Austrians, into the interior of the land between it and Serbia, he sees evi- dence everywhere of the brutality regularly practised. He reaches the home of a local Serbian hero, Danilo Pekocevic, hidden in the heart of the mountains, and while he is living with this man's family, his wife Sonia and son Toma, he comes to realise that children here are reared on a diet of hatred and revenge. Danilo and Sonia have already sacrificed two sons to the cause of nationalism, and their remaining son, Toma, looks set to take on the full expecta- tions of his heritage. It becomes Harwell's task to spirit Toma away and fulfil his mother's passionate desire that he should break the relentless cycle of revenge by escaping to America.

So there we are, all the ingredients indeed for a stirring Haggard tale. There has to be a love interest, so Harwell falls in love with Sonia, and Lydia, an English teacher stranded in a school in the capital, falls in love with him. Slowly, the plot thickens until it reaches a crescendo of quite magnificent melodrama — rape, impalement, earthquakes, the lot. The nar- rative swings along from one horror to another, convinces even when it is at its most absurd, just as a rattling good adven- ture story should. Men beaten and tortured to a pulp still manage to escape, women who have never kissed a man manage to throw aside inhibitions and prostrate them- selves naked before the object of their desire (well, one man does, one woman does, but I cannot reveal their names).

But I am not sure this is an adventure story at all. Its rhythms are uneven and strange. At times it reads like a pastiche, but at others is eloquent in a way entirely original. There are long passages of thoughtfulness mixed up with all the action, where Harwell, and sometimes Lydia, ponder matters of morality and obligation, and others where Harwell's reflection on the landscape (brilliantly described throughout) come near to an almost religious intensity. He feels that `isolation . . . is a habit of mind in this country', and within himself he hears an echo of it. The 'weight of sin' is upon him (he has had an escapade with a prostitute in London) and he feels the same weight all around him, though of a different sin, the sin of blind vengeance.

These are powerful passages, set like jewels in a gaudy necklace. They are so assured, and the writing is so smooth and elegant, that it comes as a shock when the author suddenly lurches into territory he doesn't seem to know. Harwell, Danilo and Toma are real; Sonia and Lydia are not. There is not one word spoken by Sonia in particular which rings true. She trips the novel up, bringing it dangerously near to farce, and destroying the ring of conviction about the rest of it. But this is an admirably ambitious first novel which is not afraid to take every risk going — and, mostly, it succeeds. If it doesn't grow in the mind after it has been read, it certainly grips the attention while the pages are turning, and they are turned with alacrity.