BOOK REVIEW / Artistry with sausages: The Man in the Tower - Michael Kruger: Quartet, pounds 13.95

THE MAN in the Tower is a curious story in which things fail to happen. It is narrated by a German painter, who has shut himself away in a tower on a country estate in France, but fails to produce the intended series of grand landscapes. Everything distracts him, including Dante's Divina Commedia, which he resolves to translate. He agonises over whether he is too intellectual a painter, and castigates the contemporary art scene for its fads. The death of a sparrow, savagely mauled by a bird of prey, provides some inspiration, but even this soon deserts him.

Drinking in the local bar, he becomes embroiled in a murder inquiry. For a while it seems the hunt for the murderer might lend his life some urgency, but this, too, fizzles out. A woman with whom he conducts a promising liaison fades elusively after two days, tantalising him only with occasional phone calls. Towards the end of the book, the painter pursues her to Florence, but the reader has long since abandoned hope of anything materialising when he gets there.

All this would become a trifle tedious, were it not for the pleasures of Michael Kruger's crisp, clean prose, well translated here by Leslie Willson, and his tone of detached amusement. There is an enjoyable scene in which the painter is visited in his tower by a German art collector, a sausage manufacturer from Saarbrucken, who embarks on a discussion of form and content - not in art, but in sausages. 'Good God, if my wife were to see that, she'd drop dead,' is the extent of his art appreciation, but he buys up all the painter's drawings anyway.

Overall, the novel contains much cynicism and little warmth. Only the descriptions of the dank French fields, which 'glimmer and steam' after the rain, bear the traces of a vibrant, earthy reality that the painter cannot capture elsewhere. But it is in his relationships with women that he is most irritating. Not one, but four women, all casual acquaintances, appear ready to drop at his feet, and he accepts this as a matter of course. Room here, surely, for a little authorial irony.

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