HOME  UP 


A CUMBRIAN GENIUS

Alan Dent

 

If you haven't heard of John Murray, you must have been reading the reviews. All his work, significant achievement though it is, has been published by small imprints. If Murray is largely ignored, except by a small and discerning audience,  it isn't because his work isn't brilliant. It's probably because he lives in Cumbria, has no connections with the London literary Mafia, or any of the silly accoutrements of tawdry notoriety which help to keep writers in the mesmerised public gaze. He's just a writer, but what he writes is more challenging, more bracing and much more worthy of comment and attention than the acres of curried ephemera that attract so much unctuous verbiage.  

His first novel was written seven years after he came down from Oxford where he read Sanskrit but it touches not at all on that world. It returns to the Cumbria of his childhood and explores the inner lives of an unexceptional family, revealing as it goes the exceptional nature of the unexceptional. It is a novel untouched by melodrama, in itself extraordinary given the influence of melodrama on the form. Novelists of the second rank rely too heavily on narrative drive and narrative tips too easily towards melodrama. The greatness of the modern novel, of modern literature as a whole, lies elsewhere.  

John Murray diminishes narrative drive in Samarkand to an absolute minimum. Things happen but not as part of a pattern, as the working out of a fate, as an illustration of psychological determinism. The form of the novel is not linear but radial. It works like memory, reaching out for detail and connecting it to the contiguous. To use the awful, unavoidable word, this is a novel of ordinary life. The authors warning to the reader is to be patient, to be calm, not to expect to be entertained, to pay attention, to think, to see. And what is seen is a family, holding together through love, duty, doggedness, loyalty, habit while at the same time containing the conflicting, rending dreams, hopes, disappointments, fears of its six members. It wouldn't be possible to work out a strict chronology for the book. Over just what span of time do its events take place ? Murray dissolves chronological time in the experiential and in so doing undermines the conviction that movement of time leads us to betterment, or at least to change. Chronology was essential to the nineteenth century novel because the form partook of the philosophical error that sees time itself as a medium of deliverance or perdition. In the nineteenth century novel, History was always on the march and like society, individuals had destinies the backdrop to which was the huge historical events against which their lives were played out. In this novel, Murray makes history a foreground and raises the individuals to their proper stature. He explores the lives of his characters from the inside and finds in small things, Sarah's (the mother ) desire for a bigger house for example, or Frank's (the eldest son ) grinding efforts at the exams which he sees as the key to a bigger and better life, a grandeur, a tragedy, a pathos; the commonplace passions and conflicts of the human soul, at once touching, comprehensible yet tinged with ludicrousness.  

Murray uses as an epigraph a quote from Jean Giono's Ennemonde which includes the lines:  

"the families are not centred round anyone, they move outwards from someone."  

Such is Murray's family. It moves outwards from Sarah who "strives prodigiously"; a 1950s mother, skilled as a craftswoman in her household tasks and hard-working as a miner. Here is a hymn to the contribution of pre-feminist womanhood. A reverence to motherhood and wifedom. Now, Murray wrote this book in 1980. Why did he choose such unfashionable territory? Consider, for example, what Martin Amis was writing at the time. Why did Murray deliberately turn away from Oxford, cosmopolitanism, sexual liberation, feminism ? Why did he return to a time and place remote and marginal in terms of most of the novels of the day ? Why did he feel that this world should be recorded? Why grant it the courtesy of making it the subject of a novel ? And to what kind of audience did he expect such a book to appeal?  

Well before the time when feminism was asserting that women must escape from the home in order to be free ( The Female Eunuch appeared in 1970 and was reprinted seven times by the end of 1971, a book in which Greer advised that women could only be free by rejecting the roles of wife and mother) Murray chose to write a novel at whose centre is a woman wholly committed to her home, her husband, her children. A woman who refused alcohol because:  

"Drink is money, and money is for bairns."  

In contradistinction to the ideology of the feminists, Sarah finds the meaning of her life in being devoted to others. This is not to suggest that Murray is using the novel to insinuate a political agenda. On the contrary, it is by doing justice to the life of his characters, to the nobility and integrity of their motivation however much at odds with political correctness ,that he moves beyond the superficiality of dogma. In the same way, it is hard not to feel that Murray returned to his native Cumbria in this book, to its small lives amongst a big landscape, in order to avoid those themes which might have brought him more attention but which would have been potentially less authentic. The fifties in Cumbria. A quiet decade when much that is now in question seemed settled and a remote county famous only for its hills, its romantic poets and its nuclear installation. It is a far cry from Hampstead adultery and the pursuit of money in the fast-lane of London life. Yet Murray seems to have sensed both that it is out of the world of the fifties, or the reaction against it ,that much that we think of as modern has emerged and that it was an era doomed to be swept aside, like Sarah's conception of motherhood, by the ambitions and aspirations it encouraged.  

Frank, like his mother, wants more than his life currently provides. And he will strive for it. He will make the best of those opportunities the post-war settlement has provided. Yet, these very opportunities will spell the death of the world he knows and from which he seeks to escape. Once ambition is unleashed, how does it find its limit ? If ambition provides an escape from existing conditions, how does it ever find the conditions with which it can be satisfied ? If life is a pursuit, how is it ever caught ? When does the pursuit end and the living begin Does the unleashing of ambition not risk the loss of our life in a perpetual postponement of living ? In contrast to this dilemma are the easy-going ways of Tan (the father) and the two middle boys, Mick and Joe. They live for their pleasures which, like all the best pleasures, are simple. Tan loves to read and to garden, but the former implies no ulterior purpose as study does for Frank. Tan is a true scholar for he reads for the pleasure of reading. Joe resents the homework the Grammar School teachers set him, likes to fish and spend time with Hoggy, a secondary school boy who talks endlessly and dirtily of sex. He can't abide giving up today for the sake of tomorrow, is happy at the thought of working in a factory like his father or earning a living as a deep-sea fisherman. Mick accommodates himself to what he must do but without categorical agreement. Now, which is the better attitude to life, the ferocious, ambitious striving of Frank or the take-it-as-it-comes and make everyday count approach of Joe ? Murray doesn't tilt the book in either direction but leaves us with the bitterness of the choice. Life can be lived in many ways and each has its advantages and drawbacks. But in this family, in Cumbria, in the fifties there is room for choice.  

By returning to the time of his childhood, Murray gives a "world we have lost" flavour to the novel. Published in 1985 it appeared in a society where the space it depicts had shrunk. Murray's distinction between the Grammar and Secondary culture is illustrative. True enough, the 11-plus was a scam, true it blighted the lives of millions of children, true it was grossly unjust to educate twenty per cent to a high standard and leave the rest in relative ignorance, but, as the book makes clear, the secondary lads benefit from the relaxed culture of their school. Hoggy doesn't have to sweat over homework, all his gratification is not deferred, and it is hard not to be drawn to this, not to feel that young people left to follow their distinctive interests with passion, even if their interests are fishing and football, attain an authenticity that the insistence on effort for a future goal denies. In the fifties such lads could leave school and find work, apprenticeships, day-release; they could make their way and have decent lives without having had to sacrifice their adolescence to exams. They didn't need to fear the dole queue or the drug pusher.  

Writing about this period from the perspective of the eighties Murray must have been aware that it was gone forever and in giving it vivid life he permits us to retain it and to set our own time against it; to interrogate the gains and loses. And this nostalgia, not only for the author’s own childhood but also for the social landscape in which it was lived, is one of the powers behind the novel. How different from that exploitation of the fads and foolishnesses of the present which moves so much contemporary fiction and which also deprives of necessary distance, of what Flaubert, lamenting the artistic failure of L'Education Sentimentale called: "la faussete de la perspective".  

The novel makes use of a clever combination of narratorial voice and focalization, some of the latter in the local vernacular. So the book has a shifting perspective as the voices blend and the question that Roland Barthes asked of Flaubert's style indirect libre is relevant: qui parle ? Enhanced by the elision from the thoughts of one character to another ,this intriguing puzzle of voices is one of the intense pleasures of the book. And Murray has a highly individual and wonderful way with words: when Joe skedaddles without doing his homework in spite of his mothers insistence:  

"It offended his circulation all the way up the backs to Hoggy's."  

The book never pleads to be looked through. Murray reaches his readers in what he writes. He has a love of language like Jack, the youngster of the family who is remarkably intelligent and whose precocious attraction to little May Cowin is a foil to the frustrations Frank feels in his attempts to win Sheila Coombes. Terrible the fact of sex, its nagging need, terrible the way a woman's sexuality can lift from her, stand out, be isolated so that a man can want it desperately while at the same time he knows the rest of her disappoints him (and presumably the same holds true of a woman's sexual desire). And here it is, in Cumbria, in the fifties, without the layering over of pseudo-sophistication, without the addition of ideology; the raw fact of sex and the difficulty, the agony when it does not fit easily with love.  

Samarkand. An exotic location (and Murray is a scholar of the exotic), but everything depends on perspective, and in its own way, perhaps Cumbria and all its familiarity of the fifties, radio, Wagon Wheels, St Bruno, is also a form of exoticism. Exotic in terms of Britain because left behind, suffering, as Murray will write in a later work, a seventy-year recession. A distant place that fashionable people seldom think of. But Samarkand puts Cumbria on the literary map. It was a brilliant debut and it is indicative of the skewed perspective of British literature that it hasn't been recognised as a first-rate novel, never appeared in paperback and is now out-of-print.  

Which is also the fate of Kin, Murray's bildungsroman and one of the best of its genre in English since Sons And Lovers . Murray has Lawrence's facility for "vivid scenes" comprised of an acute perception of the essence of a situation or character and uncanny accuracy in choice of language. The book's autobiographical hero is James Demesne (the choice of name is intriguing: estate, title, that which one owns, one's residence, for it is the story of Demesne's struggle to own himself and to belong in a world where by inclination and aspiration he is an outsider and which is fractured by the imprisoning uniqueness of every individuality however strong the ties of kinship ) and his trajectory from Cumbrian simplicity to Oxford sophistication (and largely pseudo-sophistication), from instilled optimism to the acceptance of the inherent tragedy of human life. It has echoes of Samarkand particularly in the person of Helen, James's mother, who is the reincarnation of the doughty Sarah of the first book. But it is much more a conventional narrative, yet lifted out of ordinariness by Murray's astonishing style, peppered with surprising adjectives, light, skipping, glancing, ironic, satiric: consider this from the latter part of the book:  

“...in fact nearly all of the surrounding estate was composed of Tory-voting tradesfolk, the Midland upper-working class whose principal concerns were bridging loans, videos, computers, DIY supercentres, Spanish and Portugese self-catering holidays, and the virtues of the Gro-Bag apropos the promotion of the tomato and the courgette."  

The dreadful, cloying narcissism of English suburban life in the late twentieth century captured and dismissed in a few lines.  

James Demesne, son of Tory-voting parents, strives to fulfill their (or more accurately his mother’s ) and his own ambitions. Yet once won, his place at Oxford fails to satisfy. He leaves behind the past he is ashamed of, his former beloved, Martha Derry, daughter of a local draper and council worthy full of the empty pomposity of a modern-day Homais, and whose unexpected visit to his dingy bedsit while he is trying to make love to the over-cerebral Bianca Cavalli, fills him with shame. Yet the world to which he has ascended cannot provide him with the simple love and fulfillment he found with Martha. His only love at Oxford is Bianca and she is sophisticated to the point of neurosis: self-observing, self-obsessed, ludicrously self-conscious, emotionally withheld and inaccessible, she is an intellectual Emma Bovary. Yet she is intellectually brilliant . What is lacking is emotional reality, something which, for all her provincial stodginess, Martha possessed. intellectually limited, lacking wit, rooted in the dismal round and gossip of small-town life, content to prattle about the most redundant trivialities, Martha, nonetheless, is capable of love, of living, that is, in terms of what is not herself. Bianca, on the other hand, stunningly beautiful and intellectually gifted is an emotional and sexual nullity. She does not rouse at the thought of a man. Dry and remote, masturbation is her favoured form of sexuality for it does not clash with her sickly egotism. Radically unreal, she is nothing but a series of poses each as self-referential as the next. Is this the price of intellectual accomplishment ? Has her emotional life been sacrificed so that all her energy is turned to her narrow, academic achievements in which she watches herself achieving, a voyeur at her own success ? Does the pursuit of this success entail an inevitable self-obsession which must become a form of emotional crippling ? Is Demesne himself crippled by his embarrassment at his modest provincial origins and if so, is the advancement worth the loss ? The theme of a clash between an authentic spontaneous love of life lived for its own sake and a ruling philosophy of aims in which living is always in the future, as if the purpose of everything must be scrutinized and known, as if life is a kind of continuous examination and we become obsessed by our results to the point that the life we pursue in achieving them is emptied of meaning, a theme pointed up in Samarkand ,is revisited here.  

The book ends with a terrible loss the first tragedy Demesne has had to suffer. Just over thirty he has to face for the first time the senseless fact of death and it shatters his shallow optimism. Married to commonsensical Alison he has retrieved something of the simplicity of his childhood. But the ease of his glittering achievements is thwarted by the rejections he receives in his attempts to make his way as a writer. Death finds him back among his kin but with an acute sense of the distinctness of every one of those lives with its special ties of affection and consanguinity. It is the real beginning of his maturity.  

There is a parallel here, of course, with Paul Morel, who also must face the world after terrible loss at the end of the novel that has seen him grow from boy to man. But Demesne, though from relatively modest circumstances, has always been convinced of his potential greatness. In a way he is the victim of his mother's ambition like Morel is the victim of his mother's frustrated clinging. His conviction of his ability gives him a kind of shield, in spite of his shyness. He attacks the world with his intellect and believes he will conquer heaven itself. But disillusion with the suffocation of academic life, the experience of Bianca's heart-rending perversity and the final, searing loss of a loved member of his family, put his excessive confidence and optimism in perspective. The brilliant student of Theology is left without answers but in his grieving despair finds a modest portion of hope. And how much more demanding and in keeping with the reality of being human is hope than optimism?  

Kin, published in 1986, ended Murray's retrospective autobiographical fiction. His next novel, published seven years later could not have been more different.  

Radio Activity is a satire on the nuclear industry, a picaresque, a fantasy which, on all its levels, refuses to deliver up its secrets easily. Whatever might be too facile or glib is neutralised by being embedded in a narrative, outrageous, hilarious, faux-naif, and a prose that refuses transparency. Murray's writing is intensely literary. He is one of the few contemporary prose writers whose practice seems to have avoided the influence of cinema. Too much modern prose reads like sophisticated camera directions. In the worst contemporary writing, language pursues reality as though there is no difference between word and thing, as if "hat" is what you wear on your head. As the visual takes precedence, the writing declines, thins, tries to make itself a window. John Murray's writing doesn't owe much to the image, the eye. Its debts are to writers: Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire, Flann O'Brien. He uses language so that significance doesn't come cheaply. Complexity is the essence of his themes, but not for its own sake, rather for the sake of intellectual and emotional honesty.  

Radio Activity because it is an attack upon dishonesty, must itself be unflinchingly honest, and honesty, curiously, is a kind of vulnerability, almost a form of weakness. It is no surprise that power and mendacity go hand in hand for the first principle of honesty must be the acceptance of the possibility of being wrong. Murray satirises the huge mendacity of the nuclear industry by basing his book around a story reputedly recounted at The Biggest Liar In The World competition, an annual event held in a pub in Santon Bridge, a cockstride from Windscale. It is the tale of the beleaguered William Stapleton, college lecturer in General Studies, who flits between Cumbria and Tangier at the whim of the tuning dial of his old radio, is mistaken for a radio reporter in pursuit of the story of leaks from the infamous reactor, twigs the connection between Tangier Street in Whitehaven and Morocco; a naive propelled into events over which he has no control, a man disillusioned in his work by the unshakeable ignorance and prejudice of those he is supposed to enlighten, adrift in a world of power, lies and bigotry and wanting only to get home to his wife and dog. The problem, of course, of attacking mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, power, is that of tone. How to avoid self-righteousness ? How to resist pompousness ? How not to fall yourself into the trap of mendacity by believing that your own perspective is without fault ? The answer lies in self-deprecating fantasy, in a multiplicity of perspectives and voices, in immediately withdrawing from any statement that is too categorical, in, finally, undermining the veracity of the very story itself so that what we are left with is a permeating sense of the relativity of reality. It is perspective that is absolute. And here, in a book about the nuclear industry, is the debt to Einstein. Truth is always truth from a particular perspective, and this is as true of the moral dimension as it is of the physical. Nor does this imply absolute relativism for if there is no truth then the truth that there is no truth cannot be true. Truth there is, but you can only see it when you accept the perspective from which it is seen as part of the truth. This is really the core of this book. Its perpetually shifting perspective means the meltdown a reliable reality that remains the same whatever your point of perception. But beyond this, of course, lies the treacherous territory of human feeling. The students William teaches are racists, prejudiced in all kinds of exotic and irrational directions. In Cumbria, where there is hardly a black face, where, therefore, any immediate, objective cause for resentment is missing, they nevertheless evince appalling intolerance and insensitivity. What is the status of truth when we have an emotional position to defend? This question of truth with ourselves is the most difficult of all for how do we find the perspective from which we can see our own emotional reality? The book seeks to make the difficulty of truth apparent yet at the same time, at its heart is the truth that the nuclear industry is based on lies. This is implied never stated. But treated to so much delightful fantasy, to such exquisite non-sequitur, to such a brilliant and devastating questioning of the nature of truth, how can we rest easy with the big claims of the nuclear industry to absolute safety, to the absolute absence of any connection between nuclear power and certain forms of cancer? In the context of the slipperiness of truth and reality in this book, such claims of absolute certainty are ipso facto false.  

The book is a masterpiece of composition. There is, almost, in a great deal of modern fiction, a sense of boredom with questions of composition; as if all the issues have been resolved and it is merely a matter of selecting and applying the appropriate formula. But Murray's composition is original, idiosyncratic and essential to the meaning of the book. To put is simply, he won't let you look through his writing to a reality beyond it. The writing thickens and sucks you in, makes you aware, then, that it is from the perspective of the writing that you perceive any reality beyond it. If there is a scent, you are constantly thrown off it. It is, you could argue, a kind of Verfremdungseffekt The reader is constantly forced back upon his own resources, asked to think, given no easy access to a convenient truth, either intellectually or emotionally. None of those aspects of fiction which permit the reader a narcissistic identification with characters, their feelings, their fate, which allow an escape from reality into a make-believe world and lead to a concentration on the feelings the book engenders within us are present here. Rather, the make-believe is too fantastic to be believed in, like that of Rabelais or Diderot and the characters sufficiently at the mercy of reality or either plainly unpleasant to defy identification. There is no manipulation of our emotions. That dishonesty of the novel which lies in its appeal to our self-complacency ( we watch like voyeurs the murder of Nancy and then invoke our moral righteousness to support the predictable hunting down of Sykes ) is defeated, as always in the best satire.  

Just as the events of the novel are fantastic, so, in a sense is its language. Take this small example:  

“Class EMOE1A thought that Shakespeare was "piss", that Jarry was "shite" but that Keith Waterhouse was "only alf shite". Class EMOE2A thought Waterhouse, Shakespeare and Jarry were all extravagant and inseparable shite. Class EMOE3A responded to his overture of reading parallel adventure passages from Sven Hassel and Ernest Hemingway by insisting in raucous unison that the prose and imaginative powers of Mr Hassel were in every respect superior to the dead Yank's."  

Think of any other writer in English who would combine "extravagant" and "inseparable" with "shite" John Murray likes adjectives. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to call him an adjectival writer. There is a kind of modern writing which flattens out, pares down, the better, apparently, to engage with reality. Murray's use of qualifiers is the antithesis of such a style for what the adjectives do is to impose judgment and value. In this example, the words "extravagant" and "inseparable" come not from the students but the narrator. They are an ironic and exasperated comment on the attitude of the students. Indeed, the structure of this little extract is such a comment: the use of the bureaucratic codes for the classes spikes the modern management of colleges; the intelligent, slightly arch language pokes fun at the ignorance and lack of judgment of the students ("Mr Hassel" has the tone of the literary review about it while "dead Yank" is the dismissive demotic of the learners). In short, Murray's narrator interposes a hierarchy of values, a view of things, a perspective between the reader and the world beyond the book, and one of his chief means of so doing is by a rich use of qualifiers.  

Murray's language is not pared down, it is deliberately elaborated in such a way that the distance between what is depicted and the depiction is closed. The effect of this, paradoxically, is not to blur the distinction between fiction and reality but to make it clearer. Murray understands that art is merely art and it is because of this that he doesn't fall into the trap of confusing realms. Here is a piece of political satire, yet so self-contained as a work of art that it accepts its virtual impotence to change what it satirises. Hence its almost pathological modesty, its near apology for daring to believe that art can impinge on dirty, fierce, corrupt reality. This book hides away its virulent message like a shy teenager concealing the first signs of acne. The effect of the writing is the opposite of striptease: the longer the performance lasts the less is revealed. Yet, just as to be dressed is to tantalize with the possibility of nakedness, so to write for concealment is to hint at what is never stated. Murray's 'message" ( I am not suggesting he is any kind of propagandist, on the contrary, he has far too subtle a mind for that is all the more powerful for being implied, suggested, enfolded, accessible only in the art itself and never separable from it. So it is never a simple message, for the art makes clear that too direct and convinced a form of discourse is almost certain, by very virtue of its too mechanistic connection to reality, to be false.  

Radio Activity is a masterpiece unmatched in its brilliance by any satiric novel of recent years. My branch of Waterstones currently has one copy tucked away on the fiction shelves where only the resolute explorer would find it, while its fiction table is piled high with expensive hard-back editions of writing that will not endure eighteen months. Such is the triumph of hype over literature.

Murray's most recent book, published in September 1996, is Reiver Blues A New Border Apocalypse. Like Radio Activity it has satirical bite, taking hold of the historical conflicts in the borders between the Scots and the English and dragging them into the twentieth century in order to explore the idea of borders: geographic, mental, linguistic, emotional, moral. The border marks the distinction between peace and war, between us and you, between love and jealousy, between loyalty and perfidiousness, between happiness and misery. And physical borders, therefore, take on a peculiar , exaggerated significance for onto them we are able to project all our confused ideas and feelings about borders per se. What could be more banal than a physical border between two lands? Yet, as Milan Kundera remarks, when we look long and hard enough at the banal we realize how extraordinary it is. Murray has realized the almost surreal significance of the border and in a delightful, outrageous, hilarious but also poignant and tragic exploration of sex, gastronomy, philology, violence, Buddhism and more, performed with breathtaking prolixity, has submitted its implications to imaginative scrutiny.  

It is a commonplace of contemporary prose that prolixity is a vice, and such it is when unintentional. But Murray uses it with deliberate precision so that it becomes a form of reticence. Reading this book is like trying to keep your head above water in a wild sea: you gasp a mouthful of air, glimpse the sky and are then hit by a twenty foot wave. Exciting, dangerous, exhilarating and demanding. Murray drowns you in language, detail and diversion. He avoids the obvious, the glib, the simplistic. Only that which can be suggested, insinuated, hinted at, nodded towards is permitted. His narrator drags you along tortuous byways. Yet the garrulousness unlike that of Henry Barker Hawkes, proprietor of the Patient Browser, is not an expression of weakness, of egotism, of the need to colonise the space between yourself and others. Rather it is a form of self-effacement. Too direct a form of communication is indicative of insensitivity. Hinting is indispensable not only to courtesy but also to truth. Willy Moscrop the loquacious revenant who plagues poor Vanessa Beatty with his tales of reivering, of his untimely demise, is rude, foolish, repetitive, self-absorbed. The narrator, on the other hand, wishes to escape himself, to lose himself in the world beyond him, in words, in food, in sex.  

The book is about the tragedy of a world in which people will kill one another over minor distinctions, but not only minor ones for the continuum between public and personal is evoked in setting side by side war over boundaries and distinctions and Samuel Beatty's (the narrator) anguish at his wife's infidelity. The hell of his existence embraces his panic attacks as he reads the foreign news in the Guardian and the melting of his viscera in the acid of suspicion and doubt. Yet Murray's instinct for avoidance of melodrama is acute. Saving humour is never far away . Chapter six, for example, is a letter from Samuel Beatty to Milosevic and Karadzic in which he exhorts them to bury their differences with their opponents through food: garlic soup and stuffed aubergines. Enjoyment of food is universal and recipes know no boundaries. The international recipe, the cosmopolitanism of cuisine, becomes a metaphor for global reconciliation. Sex plays a similar role. Samuel and Vanessa, scholars of the exotic , are translating Harinatha's Hundred Thousand Recipes of Desire and Sheikh Nefzawi's Perfumed Garden respectively. Ironic then that their own love life is in difficulties. Yet sex, in its universality, is a reminder of our inescapable creatureliness. It is a leveller. All the same, it can be the source of both the greatest happiness and the most devastating misery. Now, the ending of the book has Samuel on the verge of terrible revenge against the smooth, attractive and morally blank Claude Corelli who has made him a cuckold. He arms himself with a breadknlfe. But he doesn't use it. His pain is intense, his humiliation extreme, his disappointment debilitating, but he pulls back from vengeance, albeit that he is provided with an alleviating circumstance in that he discovers his wife distraught at having caught her lover in flagrante delicto. Life is pain, as Vanessa the Buddhist knows, but our pain does not justify our egotism, our vicious revenge.  

The novel contains a warning that may turn out to be prophetic. Europe is riven by disputes over borders, distinctions. In a beautifully fantastic moment Murray has the border in the Debatable Lands rise up before his narrator and declare its contempt for all those who fight over it. Shortly before this the spectre is invoked of 'several reborn Hitlers.. waiting on the sidelines.' The border is a metaphor for all those petty distinctions behind which we hide when fear is our essential attitude to life. For the English today, the queen's head on a coin is a kind of border and there are millions of fools who believe that to lose it would be the loss of something substantial. External borders are representations of the borders of our selfhood (hence the importance of Buddhism in the novel ) and the more egocentric we are the more we defend artificial and meaningless borders as if our life depended upon them. This is then an extraordinarily serious book. A book about the most pressing realities of our time as well as the enduring difficulties of our condition. But its seriousness is modest.  

As in all his novels, Murray delights in language and structure. The narrative of this novel is minimal. Stories interweave. Present-day Cumbria blends with sixteenth-century Tunisia, with the exoticism of Harinatha, with the old Reiver conflicts, with the horrors of revenge and recrimination in Bosnia. Murray's genius in creating this polymorphic, many-voiced fictional world is akin to James Joyce's. He toys with perspectives and with language in the same way. Willy Moscrop, for example, speaks in the dialect of his time and place, while the book is peppered with terms drawn from Murray's oriental expertise. This is not mere showing off. It is an appreciation of strangeness, of otherness. The otherness of language. especially of those which have little in common with our own, awakens us, if we have a modicum of sensitivity, to the limitedness of our of own way of speaking, seeing, the very manner in which we conceive the world. Let language , the great barrier, become then a means of overcoming barriers, a means of understanding that our way of seeing things is merely our way of seeing things. Let us pursue strangeness in order to escape ourselves, to overcome those borders between ourselves and others which we are all too ready to defend, even when we barely understand what they exist for.  

Yet there is no glib optimism here. On the contrary, the undercurrent of the book is profound pessimism. Samuel Beatty reads the Guardian and finds:  

'The concentrated substance of the East European and Third World news remained as always genocide, oppression, mutilation, feuding, feudalism, poverty. By contrast the First World foreign news and in particular the genteel E.E.C. economics, the hard ecu and so on, demonstrated a sort of idiot selfishness of the idiot pampered wholly oblivious to an extreme of alienated idiocy. This world he decided was hell”   

And he is right. But just as there is nothing as depressing as optimism so there is nothing quite so uplifting as pessimism. The death of Willy Moscrop, hacked piece by piece, parallels the nauseous detail of a Kosovo Albanian prisoner being forced to bite off the penis of a fellow Albanian, his cousin. Hundreds of years have passed and the horror remains. In the name of borders which defend something less than our humanity, we dehumanize ourselves.  

It is impossible to do justice to the complexity and subtlety of this book, or indeed Murray's previous novels, in such a short survey. But I hope I have done enough to make it clear that Murray's is an outstanding gift. There is no greater talent at work in English and he is a far better writer than many household names whose books sell in hundreds of thousands and whose advances are obscenely inflated. Two of his novels are out of print and two more exist in small editions published by small imprints. Yet Murray has done enough in these books to win a place as one of the most remarkable talents of late twentieth century English literature. Despite his provincial modesty (or maybe because of it) his work will endure when much that is founded in metropolitan pseudo-sophistication has faded. Not to know his work ought to be, indeed is, a badge of ignorance.  

 

Samarkand and Kin were both published by Aidan Ellis.

Radio activity is available from Sunk Island Publishing, P.O. Box 74, Lincoln LN1 lQG. (£7.99)

Reiver Blues is available from Flambard 4 Mitchell Aye, Jesmond,Newcastle NE2 3LA. (£8.99)

Pleasure (short stories, winner of the Dylan Thomas award 1988) isavailable from Panurge Publishing, Crooked Holme, Brampton, Cumbria CA8 2AT. (£8.99)