Books: Romanian rhapsody

Carole Angier admires a plot that unites tragic East with comic West: Kitty & Virgil by Paul Bailey Fourth Estate, pounds 15.99, 280pp 266pp
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KITTY & VIRGIL promises a simple, tender story, probably of love. And so it is. But that unusual Latinate name, with its echo of the great poet, hints at more: and there is much more.

In Paul Bailey's novel, Kitty is a middle-aged Englishwoman, editor and indexer. She is also a bohemian and a bit of an ex-hippy, and twin sister of the appalling Daisy, who is her polar opposite: sensible, bossy and full of rage, permanently attacking the world for not being the orderly place she requires.

Kitty wakes up after a hysterectomy to see a stranger smiling at her. Nine months later she remeets him in Green Park, where he is picking up litter on a spike. He is Virgil: a dissident poet escaped from Ceausescu's Romania; desperately thin, shabby and neurotic, and immediately, recklessly, her lover.

They have two years of happiness, during which his literally unendurable story slowly emerges; at the end of which he is able, for the first time, to spend the whole night with her. At the end of this time, too, comes Christmas 1989 and the fall of Ceausescu, which they watch together on television. A week later he is gone, and a few months after that he is dead.

All this we know from the start; we even guess very soon that he has taken his own life. Even Kitty's love could not cure what he suffered from. That hysterectomy was no accident, for in their two worlds - one of peace and the other of war, one of endless time and shades of grey, the other of harsh choices and harsher consequences - there can be no real future, despite their longing and love.

It was, therefore, extraordinarily brave of Paul Bailey to put these two worlds in one book, where they could have been just as incompatible. But he does it, as daringly as Kitty; and it works, because he understands them both so well.

We already know how sharp he is on English life and character, and the portraits here - perhaps above all the voices here - are glorious. Dreadful, pathetic Daisy, her dull, facetious husband Cecil and their embarrassed children; best of all, Kitty and Daisy's fabulously vain and shallow father Felix, and his wicked, kind companion Derek. More surprising is the sureness of touch about Romania. The pictures of the gruesome Conductor, the scenes between Virgil and his friends, even more those between Virgil and his enemy, the Securitate agent Corneliu - all are utterly real, both absurd and harrowing.

Finally, the scenes between Virgil and his family are utterly real too. At first I feared this could be the novel's danger point: the weighty horrors of recent Romanian history set against the subtle, funny horrors of English family betrayals. But it was, instead, the point.

Virgil has a good mother and a bad father, like Kitty; and like Kitty he is the sensitive child, with a sensible brother. But the degree of the mother's goodness and (especially) the father's badness, and the consequences for the child's sensitivity, are simply on a different scale in the war world than in the peace one. It is (once again) brave of Bailey to show this to British readers; and fortunate for us that he is a writer of such power that we believe him.

He has written a book about the destructiveness of intolerance, selfishness and the lust for order, and about the redeeming power of tolerance, love and pity, in both worlds.

The story of Kitty and Virgil is deeply romantic. But the fact that they cannot, in the end, be saved by love and peace from the consequences of intolerance and war is deeply pessimistic; and, I'm afraid, deeply true.