Fire Down Below William (iolding (Faber £11.95l'l‘he conclusion of a trilogy that began with the Booker Prize-winnin g Rites of Passage and its sequel ( 'lose Quarters. Fire Down Below. like its briny predecessors. is set aboard the sordid. decrepit hulk that is making heavy weather ofan 18th century voyage ‘from the South of()ld England to the Antipodes.‘ It is a ship of death. of fools. of madness. ofhope. Golding. an ancient mariner among his peers (he jousted with the Bismarck during World War II ). said after a near-fatal sailing accident that he would ‘never again be responsible for anybody else's life at sea.‘ It is time he ate his words. Those few who have survived
OUT OF THE SILENCE
‘Il it wasn'tlor him, lwouldn't be writing. His work has a kind of dignity and craltmanship that I haven't tound anywhere else. But I'm just. . . how can I say. . . a crumb, a piece of dust, not his heir at all,‘ adds Gianni Celati, speaking in English with a hesitation that springs more lrom modesty than lack ol Iluency. In Britain Iorthe publication at the English translation at his short story collection, Voices From the Plains, he is talking about his teacher and lriend, the late Itan Calvino. Hardly an Italian lirst novel now goes by without the solemn incantation ol comparisons with at one this century's masters ol prose —yet with Celati‘s lourth book they seem not only apt but thoroughly deserved.
Now in his titties and a teacher of American literature in Bologna. Celati represents a kind at writer inlrequently found and rarely tolerated in this country: uncompromisineg intellectual (he has spent ten years researching the work at Wittgenstein), stolcal in the extreme, meticulous in his crafting ol language, but whose writing bypasses post-modernist doodling lor story-telling ol artless simplicity.
These ‘voices lrom the plains' are stories of live or six pages at most, told by an unknown narrator as he wanders through the soulless landscape that is the industrial hinterland ot the Po valley. Alter several years at not writing, simply because he tell he ‘had nothing to say', Celati spent some months in the area just observing and recording. Initial inspiration came lrom photographer Luigi Ghirri, with
the first two novels are in a bad way Some stare darkly into glasses of yo-ho-ho. others are bunked and dying. and the able—bodied but angst—ridden have to endure the meddlesome attention of Edmund 'I‘albot. the priggish. platitudinous narrator of this ﬂoating tragedy. I’Ioughing through mountainous seas and dodging icebergs. the ship and its company threatens to come apart at the seams. Like Lurdoflht’ Flies. it is a study of human interaction in a confined space. Good and evil are the protagonists with Golding controlling the mizzen. It reads like the real thing but before you book your passage take 'I‘albot's advice and get hold ofa copy of Falconer‘s Marine Dictionary. Without it landlubbers could well be over-bored. (Clive Yellowjohn)
CHEWING OLD BONES
The Cloning ol Joanna May Fay
whom he began to work on books designed to ‘take care’ at landscape; attempts to record, without resort to cliche or sentimentality, the evolution oi the suburban environment in which so many Italians live. Talking of landscape, Celati mentions the tilms ol Wim Wenders with their sense at ‘loitering in a landscape' and reveals the strong humanitarian impulse behind his writing. ‘This ‘taking care', it's really an act at love. You cannot target this when you are using language and it one does then something very lrightening happens, like so much at modern schooling which is, in essence, soul murder'. The stories themselves are an elliptical combination oi the surreal
and the everyday, with quizzical titles such as ‘The Perpetual Motion Machine
Type II‘ or ‘What happened to the three lootballing brothers‘, strongly reminiscent ol Borges. Their whimsical subjects range lrom a Japanese girl who lives her lile by her astrologer's chart to two children who seek adults who are not unbearably banal and lind none. What is most striking is a radically idiosyncratic story-telling
RI" ‘ I I" » .' ~
Weldon (Collins £12. 5) Weldon returns with claws. as ever. out and fangs bared at the fate of women controlled by men. The usual shadows — lurking. almost supernatural evil and bloody revenge — lean voraciously over the book. stealing light from the lives of
Joanna May. ageing and abandoned. continues to spar with her powerful. wealthy but mad ex-husband. in scenes of Dynasty-esque glamour and temper-tantrums. (‘arl May. the ex. stalks through the book. growling. snarling and delivering fatal bites to Joanna May‘s lovers. His tip-bringing of many moons ago — he was chained to a kennel by his parents — is the driving force behind his blood-curdling insanity. Because he is the owner of nuclear power stations. the world hangs precariously in the balance of his mind. Apart from a secret vasectomy and a few murders. May has perpetrated an unforgiveable crime: he has cloned Joanna May.
The news that four grown-up shavings of herself are walking about (nearby. as it conveniently turns out) is initially received with voluhle indignation. Then. at the prospect of a ready-made family. she cheers up.
style that jump-cuts between lragments oi narrative ranging lrom apparantly trivial descriptive details to statements bordering on the metaphysical.
This rellects Celati's preoccupations directly. He talks animatedly ol listening to a garrulous woman’s incomprehensible banter on the train over from Glasgow and at his own experiences in the Po valley: ‘Little by little, I lound my way, listening and understanding —overhearing conversations, picking up the rhythms and intonations of people meeting. . . this is really the only way we lind stories in lile'.
Celati stresses the writer's need to escape the suttocating coniines ol subjectivity, which he struggles to achieve through incessant exposure to the line detail ol everyday lile. ‘Otherwise one linds onesell. . . how
can I say. . . pumped by leeling, which ;
makes writing into something vicious and sets the writer apart, as il I should think at mysell as somehow dilterent lrom others as a supposedly creative person. What is important is the common usage at language and also the proximity ot everyday things — they are there and they speak to us through our habits. Language is not an instrument. It is like a sea where we swim and in this way, it is the base at every possible habit.’
Ideas at this undeniably philosophical bent reveal Celati‘s background in linguistics and literary theory, which is perhaps partially responsible tor his past sense at verbal exhaustion. Yet lrom the unsettled
margins at the deconstructionist's view
of language, he creates a series of
As usual. it‘s hard to fault Weldon‘s ability to craft a novel. But the book is a cold. bloodless affair. lacking the life-giving veins which might make it hum. (Kristina Woolnough)
A CROOK IN THE TELLING
Book Of Evidence John Banville (Secker 62 Warburg £10.95) Here‘s Banville — as ever — going comma-kale. peppering his prose with punctuation like a tadpoles‘ convention. Ilis sentences are hard graft. as is the fate of his novel‘s hero. Freddie Montgomery.
Freddie -— a paid-up bad egg whose sunny side is down — is thirty eight and doing bird for a spot of larceny. with kidnap and homicide thrown in. It‘s the end of a big bad bender that started in the States with a little extortion and a lot of booze and then brought him to pastures old: the promise of Ireland. the green super-grass of home.
This book is Freddie's prison testament to his low-life. recounting picaresque shenanigans and their culmination in the abduction and murder of a young woman who stands in the way of his heist ofa painting.
Banville delivers it unsentimentally. mixing sharp
representations or the vnstble world that are deceptively child-like. The effect is both tantalizing and disarming. Celati agrees: ‘All stories revolve around the contours oi silence, around everything which is not said—l the same as in everyday conversation. People often ask me what is the message at this book, which implies a kind at language that is meant to affirm something. I am looking tor another kind at language-the human one— which is always in a kind at bubble ol sHenceJ Catching the conversational tonallty oi the stories' structure in English proved a ditticult task, notably due to untranslatable tense ditlerences between the two languages. Yet Celati Ieels that Robert Lumley's version is the best possible one, capturing both
the original‘s musical metrics and Its limpid, dispassionate prose style.
A strange sense at loneliness, loss and lailure unites the stories. Yet it Is somehow transmuted into an inscrutable pleasure lor the reader by the power at story-telling itsell. ‘Writing is always a lailure. There is an inadequacy in the experience of writing and this is the most important thing. When you obliterate this inadequacy, that is when you start taking words, things and eventually people, lor granted'. With Voices From The Plains, Celati manages eloquently and without pretension to illuminate a rarely-lound laith in words, born not at a naive romanticism but at a paradoxical realisation that it is perhaps through having ‘nothing to say’ that the writer ‘ really begins to speak. (Simon Bayly) Voices From the Plains is published in paperback by Serpent's Tall at £6.95.
I the List 19 May— 1 June 1989 65