A voice from the void

Robert Winder reads William Golding's last, tantalising novel
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The Independent Culture
The Double Tongue

by William Golding

Faber, pounds 12.99

William Golding's last, not-quite-finished novel is the memoir of the Delphic oracle, and no doubt about it, she makes a wonderful central character. She's a holy virgin in a war-battered world ruled by rough men, and a humble village girl in touch with the gods. She's part philosopher, part gossip columinist: a riddler, a medium, a scholar and a poet. Golding adds one less traditional qualification: the Oracle is also a fraud. But this remains by any standards an impressive CV, and a story that puts her at its heart is bound to grapple with good questions about the nature of authority, faith, and the supernatural power of words.

Whether she is the ideal protagonist for a William Golding novel is quite another question. She might have been better off with a postmodern trickster, a slippery pun-lover exhilarated by enigmatic paradoxes and double meanings. The grand, flinty Nobel laureate is hardly a writer of this sort. Early on he makes a few musclebound attempts to catch the tense balance of dynamic opposites that Pythia represents. "Women aren't free," she asserts, "not even the free ones". And a nurse cries out "with laughter which was also a reprimand." But these crashing equivocations soon fade away, and the story stretches out as clean and dry and clear as the beach in Lord of the Flies.

It is written as a monologue - a memoir, in effect - by Pythia herself (Pythia is the python Apollo slew: nothing to do with being pithy). A young girl is sold to a High Priest and told that she will one day become the Oracle. In career terms it is a fortunate break - no more toiling in the fields, no more botched encounters with the boy next door; but from here on it is all disillusionment and cycnicism. The high priest turns out to be a public relations spin merchant. The holy Oracle has been corrupted and is now a commercial enterprise, a tourist trap, and a holding house for political tittle-tattle. It is also a front for a "Home Rule for Hellas" campaign organised by Greek patriots against their Roman governors. These men know that knowledge is power; they use carrier pigeons to bring news from afar. At first the Oracle is astounded by the blatant cycnicism of the operation. "You are ignorant," her coach tells her, "and ignorance such as yours makes you look like a seer."

Spring is busy, he warns, what with all the tourists. And when she pushes him to be more respectful of the gods, he admits: "You see, I don't believe in them." When she protests that she does not wish to be fed questions and answers in advance she is patronisingly put in her place. "You've no idea how credulous the Romans are," they say. "That question could be worth millions."

As you can see, it is a fairly straightforward exercise in iconoclasm, a parable about how wicked men have hijacked the divine spark and are using it for their own measly ends. It's Quiz Show set on Parnassus - the Oracle turns out to be rigged, a cover for politicians and salesmen. You keep hoping the heroine will confound them all and turn out to be truly possessed, and Golding does drop a few hints that she has some innocent feminine contact with the spirit world, but in the end she is possessed in a more earthly fashion. She is blind-folded, dressed in "maiden garments" and led to meet her "celestial bridegroom." There, not to put too fine a point on it, she is raped. "Suddenly my whole body began to shudder... my knees struck the solid earth... my body worked like some automaton." Hellas bellas! It's all a bit nudge-nudge-wink-wink, but we get the picture, even if she doesn't.

As a vision of a corrupt, godless world, the episode has a certain rough power, but it won't surprise many modern readers to be told that the Delphic oracle wasn't really divinely inspired. We are dying for something uncanny to happen, but Golding seems reluctant to let it. Pythia herself is genuinely swayed - "I had spoken words and not known I had spoken them. They were the god's words." But the book refuses to let us share her faith. At the end she uses a special silver key to open the god's room and there, behind the door, is... well, it's not Dionysus, that's for sure.

One of the maddening things about a work such as this is that it is an incomplete draft, and speaks first of all to a biographical interest. It is a revealing example of a work in progress, with a moving sense of the deathbed about it; it also feels attractively provisional - we can only imagine what Golding might have done to stretch and enrich it. But as it stands, there are frustrating gaps. Essential matters are shrugged off as too boring to relate. "Why describe Delphi?" Pythia remarks, "All the world knows how it hangs on the flank of Apollo's mountain." As the Oracle herself might say: All that glitters is not Golding.