BOOK REVIEW / Dark continent of the mind: Masai Dreaming by Justin Cartwright: Macmillan, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
JUSTIN CARTWRIGHT's new novel is an allusive and predatory rumination on savagery and narrative. The book is divided into more than 60 short sections which dispense information with a near-regal randomness. Cartwright's gappy and short-circuiting structure is at once casual and cunning; Masai Dreaming sneaks up and catches you unawares.

Fractured narrative, fractured lives. Like the hero of Look At It This Way, Cartwright's last novel, Timothy Curtiz is a London-based journalist for Manhattan magazine. Curtiz has been approached by a movie producer to write the script for a bio-pic of a French Jewish anthropologist, Claudia Cohn-Casson, who was killed by the Nazis. For his researches Curtiz travels to Africa, where he holds extensive interviews with Tom Fairfax, Cohn-Casson's former lover. Curtiz is happy to be away from England, where his wife has been having an affair, yet the more he labours at unearthing the past, the further he seems to get from the truth. And the more he works at knocking a story into shape, the more images of his wife's infidelity permeate his consciousness. Adorno famously declared that there could be 'no poetry after Auschwitz'. Curtiz begins to appreciate that the horrors of the Holocaust could never be conveyed in a film: 'The only way you could begin to express this horror would be to murder a child actor on camera.'

In fact, the novel suggests that there may be something dangerous about any narrative. Grudgingly, Curtiz comes to believe that story-telling (especially Hollywood-style) is always and only a lie; and that an over-fondness for the flatteries of narrative, for life without the rough edges, without the mysteries, leads not only to dishonest art but also to simple-minded cure-alls like Nazism.

Though references to Durkheim, Proust and Nabokov are scattered through the book, Masai Dreaming seems to be an extended fulmination against the amoral abstractions of many contemporary gurus. In one of the most touching and wise moments, Curtiz summarises Fairfax's line of thought: 'He means humility is in shorter supply in this world than self-important theorising.' Before all else, this is an acutely observed novel. Cartwright has a sharp, Waugh-like way with dialogue and he is good on location: Masai Dreaming does for Africa what Look At It This Way did for contemporary London - gets it right. Talking about a novel as a moral vehicle is unfashionable, yet as we await Steven Spielberg's over-blown bowdlerisation of Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark, we could do worse than study the quiet veracities of this fine book.