BOOK REVIEW / Toward the state of dreams: 'The Course of the Heart' - M John Harrison; Gollancz, 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE HAVE BEEN enthralled by Latin American ingenuity for so long that it is hard to remember that, as Borges himself put it, the Spanish literary tradition is naturalistic, whereas English is 'the literature of dreams'. The Course of the Heart, a gloriously intelligent, beautifully written and thoroughly maddening book, develops that tradition of dreams.

The plot is thin. At Cambridge 20 or 30 years ago, three students and their tutor go into a field and perform some sort of experiment or ritual. The results are so ambiguous that 'even at the time I wasn't sure what we had done', but it binds the students together. Lucas and Pam, two of the students, marry one another; the third narrates this book.

Or most of the book: the relationship between Lucas and Pam is troubled, and to fill the gap between them Lucas invents the memoirs of 'Michael Ashman' and his search through central Europe for 'the country of Coeur'. Ashman's narrative - some smartly achieved reminiscences of Europe between the wars, rather in the manner of Greene's autobiography - weaves through the novel, establishing the idea of a semi-mythical state at Europe's heart.

Meanwhile, in beautifully observed and sometimes chilling scenes, Lucas and Pam divorce, though they never cease to be important to one another. Finally Pam dies of cancer, and Lucas goes to Europe to hunt out the Coeur in person. This might sound rather whimsical - the combination of a naturalistic background, an intangible magic and cancer calls to mind John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance. But Harrison's treatment of his themes is entirely original.

Much of this originality is technical. In his semi-autobiographical novel Climbers, Harrison linked episodes by analogy rather than chronology, and often the same technique is employed here, though the story of Pam's illness is allowed to unfold according to time's normal rules. The Course of the Heart is dream literature in several ways. Not only are the contents of the dreams described frequently and allowed to inform the characters' lives; much of the action seems to occur in the place of our dreams, where causality has been suspended but reality still intrudes. Yet the direction of time's arrow remains true, and its trajectory towards death absolutely constant.

Criss-crossing the story are bursts of overheard conversations, fragments of other lives. Occasionally these seem to connect. The well-spoken black man met on a train may be the one who photographed Pam in hospital when she was a child. Beneath this faith in connections, however, Harrison has buried a more desperate idea. The plot of The Course of the Heart leads to the unavoidable conclusion that coincidence is merely coincidence after all. Each of us is a narrative, Harrison suggests, and the interlocking moments making up that narrative might be utterly arbitrary, equally daft. In the final pages the narrator's own wife dies in an accident, and he can only think 'The goddess gives, the goddess takes away'.