Books: Paperback roundup

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The Independent Culture
Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler, Vintage pounds 6.99. Being Canadian may not be fashionable, but it does have its advantages - you don't have the same world-historical burdens as an American author. So while in many ways Richler's latest looks like a Philip Roth novel - irascible Jewish narrator yarns through his life, reminiscing about the old gang and wrestling with impending mortality - Richler can afford to relax a little more, tell a few jokes. Not that Barney Panofsky, Montreal anglophone Jewish television magnate, is naturally humorous, but his constant flare-ups at his wives, his children, his employees and pretty well anybody else unfortunate enough to cross his path, are a lot funnier than Roth's almighty existential snit. In this long, snarling memoir, Barney battles with a failing memory and a tarnished reputation in an effort to establish the truth about his early marriage to feminist icon Clara Charnofsky and his supposed involvement in the disappearance of Bernard "Boogie" Moscovitch. Not all of it works (a running joke involving footnotes by Barney's pedantic son falls flat), but it has enough momentum to sail through the odd calm spell.

For Good and Evil by Clive Sinclair, Picador pounds 6.99. Also showing an impressive gift for not being Philip Roth, Sinclair inflects his tales of Jewishness, sex and literary ambition with an unnerving Gothic streak. Though in any case, it's clear that being Jewish in Europe is a whole different kettle of fish: this side of the Atlantic you have two Promised Lands, Israel and America, and Sinclair feels the tug of both. This is a welcome reissue of a bumper collection of his short stories, including the collected tales of Joshua Smolinsky, private eye - who at one point finds himself staying in Roth's room at a colony for writers - and the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit told from the point of view of the tree.

The City of Light trs and ed David Selbourne, Abacus pounds 9.99. Ostensibly, this is a revelatory historical document - a hitherto unknown account by a 13th-century Jewish-Italian merchant of a trip to China which predates Marco Polo by some years. The historian David Selbourne, best-known for his association with the right-wing academic journal Salisbury Review, says that he was approached by the manuscript's owner with a view to bringing the contents into the public domain; but the owner, for reasons best known to himself, is not prepared to let anybody else see the manuscript at present. Not surprisingly, this story aroused a great deal of suspicion; among other things, it has been suggested that the descriptions of the political debates and sexual licence of the port of Zaitun are Selbourne's own jabs at contemporary mores. In a new afterword, Selbourne rejects all the criticisms, pointing out, for instance, that nobody has ever seen Marco Polo's manuscript. This sort of vacuous point - it's not as if Marco's antiquity is in question - puts me on the side of the sceptics, though that begs the question of why anybody would bother to make it up. So, possibly an amazing find, possibly a load of faked-up right-wing hokum. Toss a coin.

"Exterminate All the Brutes" by Sven Lindqvist, trs Joan Tate, Granta pounds 5.99. The title comes from Heart of Darkness: it's Mr Kurtz's conclusion to his report on the suppression of savage customs. Lindqvist has produced a riveting discourse, combining a modern travelogue with an analysis of the events that lay behind Conrad's novel. Colonialism, geology, literary history are all linked together in his account of the development of the racist doctrines with which the Victorians, often unconsciously, justified the European carve-up of Africa. Along the way, any comforting thoughts you may have had about the comparative decency of the British Empire take a stiff knock (and the idea that Britain should apologise for Kitchener's behaviour at Omdurman, mooted by the Sudanese government a couple of months ago, starts to look more reasonable). But he has another, more disturbing idea: that in the imperial doctrine of the inferiority of certain races lay the seeds of the Holocaust.

Bordersnakes by James Crumley, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Crumley has been grouped with James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss as a master of American crime fiction's New Machismo school. So far he's divided his time between two detectives, C W Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch (not that I've ever noticed a great deal of difference between them, except that Sughrue is younger, poorer and marginally more violent). Here, they join forces: Sughrue out to find the man who shot him, Milo after a swindling banker who's made off with his inheritance. As usual, Crumley lays on appalling quantities of drink, cocaine, horny women and comic-strip violence involving feats of massive personal strength and large-calibre firearms violence, all wrapped up with a practically medieval code of personal integrity. At his worst, as in the frankly embarrassing "The Mexican Tree Duck", Crumley writes like a drunk - rambling helplessly with occasional convulsions of sentimentality - and even at his best, he turns out testosterone-loaded rubbish (bollocks, in fact). But it is hugely enjoyable if you don't take it too seriously, and if you're not too bothered about things like coherent plotting or vague resemblance to reality.

Clone by Gina Kolata, Penguin pounds 7.99. A lucid account of the history of genetic research and the technical problems involved in the production of Dolly, the amazing cloned sheep, is bogged down by Kolata's desperate desire to be taken seriously - I'd imagine that is the result of years of being mistaken for either a brand of ice-cream or a cocktail. So we end up with too much literary reference, and some sterile discussion of the ethical problems of cloning - the biggest problem being that while Kolata knows cloning has significant moral implications, she's not too sure what they are. In the end, about half the book seems to boil down to "Urrrr, t'aint natural"; skip over those bits, though, and it's exemplary pop science.

ROBERT HANKS

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