BOOK REVIEW / Watery draught of Vichy

Brian Moore's late fiction is anorexically insubstantial. By Christophe r Hawtree; The Statement by Brian Moore Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

Contrary to popular belief, a reviewer prefers not to have wasted his time. How much better it would be if one could recommend that you rush out and buy Brian Moore's new novel, rather than that you catch up with the rest of his output. To those who know Moore's fascinating, sometimes elliptical early novels, there might be a residual curiosity in observing his persistence with the sparsely-told, unballasted thrillers which began four novels back. The Colour of Blood was effective enough, and Lies of Silence certainly kept one reading, even if it has largely vanished from the memory, as fast as did No Other Life.

With The Statement, we are taken to another thinly-detailed locale, this time France and the sinister aftermath of Vichy collaboration, something which government and Church alike find it convenient both to deny and to perpetuate. Alas, such chicanery leaves one indifferent, for its agents are no more substantial than the mere initials allotted to hunter and hunted. In these pages, the man responsible for the massacre of Jews is no more real than a Klaus Barbie doll. How much more thrilling, how much more electricity there was to Moore's prose, when he did not set out to thrill.

One can pick out almost any of his novels as an instance of this. Even a lesser work, such as Cold Heaven, which turns upon a corpse reaching out, Hammer-like, for its wristwatch, manages to offer some metaphysical speculation upon miracle and reality as well as having great sport with the contemporary clergy (never has golf been so sinful). Even better was The Great Victorian Collection, which that connoisseur of dreams, Graham Greene, read several times. Brief as it is, the myriad objects (replica? fake?) which a minor academic dreams into existence outside his Carmel motel, make for a farce which finds the space for greed, ambition, deceit, adultary: a shimmering view of the American scene, and more. Above all it achieves a novelist's most difficult task: the reader's immediate suspension of disbelief. America, and Canada, perhaps, find Moore at his best, as in the first-person narrative of I Am Mary Dunne, whose deceptively Cosmo-style opening is transformed into a searing account of the Upper East Side ladies who lunch, the mundane enlarging upon itself, by way of psychoanalysis and sex, to form an empty well of horror.

These novels linger on the shelves, drawing one back, but it is difficult to say that much about The Statement. Here are such stock elements as a truculent cafe-owner, with a hint of Gorden Kaye about him, and exploding motor-cars. All this is offset by the occasional meditation along the lines of: "if I die tonight, will I be forgiven? Will God balance the things I did to save France from the Jew communists against my sins: women, the friends I betrayed, the hold-ups, the frauds?"

Alas, so perfunctory a narrative cannot bear these weighty, troubling considerations. Moore appears to be working against his own, variegated grain. It's difficult to resist the suspicion that he has been as ill- advised by his controllers in persisting in this vein as he was to pose for a cover photograph in a gabardine raincoat. Presumably, the intention is Maigret or Harry Lime; the effect is that of a man about to pull it open.

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