BOOKS / Paperbacks

The Conquest of Mexico by Hugh Thomas, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Cortes and his tiny army did not pluck a plum that was ripe to fall. The Aztec expansion had begun less than 100 years earlier and in 1518 their culture remained vigorous. Nor were they crudely colonial, but, like a modern superpower, controlled with some subtlety a network of client states from a magnificent and advanced centre. Excellent mathematicians, craftsmen and civil administrators, the Mexicans would easily have assimilated the Spaniards' innovations - iron, candles, the alphabet, horses, wheeled transport. It was smallpox, another present from Europe, which denied them the chance. Without the virus (and for all his courage and military skill) Cortes might well have been crushed, with intriguing consequences for the course of history.

This extremely fine, large-scale narrative of the conquistador adventure is the first since the monumental work of Prescott 150 years ago.

My Idea of Fun by Will Self, Penguin pounds 5.99. This first confident novel made the author's name - a name which in itself is like a middle finger up the idea of literary reticence. His plot is a reworking of the legend of Faust selling his soul to the devil (known in the book as the Fat Controller) but Self's literary models are more William Burroughs and Martin Amis, although the shuddering disgust he generates is clearly meant to break the Richter scale. It's forced right in your face, or your neck, given what the protagonist does on page two to the tramp, just after he has decapitated him.

The Way to Xanadu: The Search for the Sources of Coleridge's Kubla Khan by Caroline Alexander, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Alexander is one of a band of travel writers reviving H V Morton's 'in search of' mode: historical obsession is assuaged by a journey to associated sites; modern life plays counterpoint. Today Kubla Khan's Xanadu is Yengshan-tu, a windswept ruin in Inner Mongolia. But the quest for Coleridge's symbolic landscape also takes Alexander to India, Florida and Ethiopia. She has a striking gift for a phrase, describing a town in China 'so new that it did not sit comfortably under the sky, which seemed in its vastness to pour down upon it'. There's a real Coleridgean ring to that.

Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates, Picador pounds 6.99. According to its blurb, this is a 'careening' novel - which in my dictionary means it will turn you on your side and scrape off your barnacles. The story of a gang of female avengers is certainly abrasive, though their male targets are a little obvious (fat child-abusing uncle, bullying teacher, rapist at a bus station) and the setting - Fifties upstate New York - a shade anachronistic for a feminist terror gang. But the stand-up-and-cheer factor is strong, nevertheless.

Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928-32 edited by Jose Pierre, Verso pounds 11.95.

Addicts of television's late, famously frank Sex Talk will not want to miss this singular relic of surrealism, since it proves that Andre Breton and friends anticipated Channel 4's idea by more than 60 years. Participants of these highly confessional sex-symposia - including Man Ray, Louis Aragon and Max Ernst - were mostly writers and artists but there was also Genbach, a scabrous unfrocked Jesuit, Jean Baldens-perger, a donkey-bonking revolutionary and the pseudonymous 'Madame Lena' who is given to screaming her sister's name at the moment of orgasm. These transcriptions, never less than interesting, are sometimes hilarious.

A Short Walk From Harrods by Dirk Bogarde, Penguin pounds 5.99. Bogarde opens this sixth volume of autobiography with a fine meditation on the loneliness of a ruefully returned expatriate. Then he moves, in flashback, to his French home of 20 years and his friend Forwood, whose terminal illness has forced him to sell up and return to London; then back again to how the Provence farmhouse was bought and converted. Even here, memory doesn't hold the door and he is driven still further into his childhood to tease out the meaning of home and comfort. Only towards the end does he return to present tense London, in which 'emptiness sighs'.

A Big Life by Susan Johnson, Faber pounds 6.99. Set in Sydney, London and seaside England in the Thirties, Johnson's second novel is about Billy Hayes, an acrobat whose skill on the high wire is far removed from his dozy, bumbling approach to life. The prose, full of the acrobat's energy and with all the fun of the prom-prom-prom, is beneath it all sad. Billy is a child-man, almost a simpleton, and his specialised way of life is doomed: Susan Johnson has produced an exceptionally assured piece of imagining.

The Great Year: Astrology, Millenarianism & History in the Western Tradition by Nicholas Campion, Arkana pounds 15. Campion rightly points out in his densely researched study that 'golden age and new age myths reduce humanity to a single mass, all of whom must be subject to a single, cosmically-sanctioned order.' Here lie the roots of totalitarianism, which he traces from early Mesopotamia to the contradictory modern traditions of authoritarian politics and New Ageism. The author is a working astrologer who rejects both of these. His positive conclusion is less clear. If I have him right he's a pragmatist who sees time, like nature, as a cyclical system within which human history runs in waves. The waves (which astrology charts) contain diversity and change - but 'no new dawns, only periods of readjustment'.

Beastly Tales by Vikram Seth, Phoenix pounds 4.99. The author of a rock-crushing novel about Indian independence here tries an older, sparer form: 10 verse cartoons, fables in which animals caricature human behaviour.

Two are original. In others Seth retells folk tales from India, China and Greece - as when the tortoise and the hare re-run their race, with a cynical twist. Seth writes a tight iambic line, for kids from nine to 99.

(Photographs omitted)

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