Books in Brief

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The Independent Culture
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy by Jose Saramago, trs Giovanni Pontiero, Carcanet pounds 14.95. The European Art Novel is as daunting a prospect as the European Art Movie, but this Portuguese academic's 1977 debut is, once you've accustomed yourself to its terrain, surprisingly easy to negotiate. From its vaguely Kafka-esque opening, with H, the narrator, commissioned to paint a portrait of S, a shadowy government figure, it develops into an intelligent meditation on fatuity and lack of purpose. Slowly, out of the murk of H's self-concern, other figures appear: faint at first, gradually more defined. As a painter H is a mere hack, but what ultimately saves him is his curiosity about his own condition. 'What do I want? Firstly, not to be defeated. Then, if possible, to succeed.' When even these modest ambitions overwhelm him in his painting, he turns slowly, wonderingly, to writing. Interspersed with his 'exercises in biography', which detail, conventionally, his first brush with death, and, less so, the loss of his political virginity at the hands of the security police, are descriptions of Renaissance masterpieces, an account of a trip to the Venice Biennale, musings on film and literature, and a definitive analysis of why people buy art postcards. A quiet triumph.

Dixie Chicken by Frank Ronan, Sceptre pounds 9.99. God tells the story here, which is not so very extraordinary, except that your usual omniscient narrator doesn't stop every now and then to make terrible jokes ('I am not dead and I am not Eric Clapton'). Everybody, even God, mourns the sudden, violent passing of Rory Dixon, who hurtles over a cliff into the Irish Sea in his Lancia Spider. We never get to know Dixon in the course of the novel (just as it becomes clear that the people around him didn't really know him either - they just projected their desires on to him); we are left to contemplate the jagged hole his death leaves in the existence of others. For all its sex and irony, this is on one level a whodunnit. But why they dunnit is much more gripping and finally sad, as a relatively simple case is hopelessly complicated by shame, lies and the community's vested interest in covering up irregularity. Was it despair, retribution from 'the Boys' in the North, or the pressure of being everyone's love object that eventually killed Rory Dixon?