BOOKS / In the Kalahari with Nelson and his mate: Natasha Walter meets Norman Rush, whose amazing first novel has won this year's Irish Times / Aer Lingus Fiction Award

IT wouldn't cross your mind, talking to him, that Norman Rush has just written a masterpiece. He hasn't worked up the personality tie-in; he hasn't transformed himself into a literary type. You'll never see him in a Vanity Fair photo-gallery next to Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey and Jay McInerny. So while his novel, Mating (Jonathan Cape pounds 14.99), is thrustingly experimental, with an insistent and dazzling style, Norman Rush is a quiet and uncharismatic man with a neatly clipped beard, who displays very old-fashioned manners with respect to car doors and the outside edges of pavements.

While Mating's heroine is a red- headed woman on the loose in southern Africa, Norman Rush lives in a rural retreat not far from Manhattan where he chops wood for the stove and gives his manuscripts to his wife to edit. Just as he is hardly the attention-seeking sort, so his book wasn't hyped by the publishers - no dumpbins, no nationwide promotion. But on its own merits, and hardly any chatter, Mating will outlast its age.

Here in Dublin, where Rush has come to collect the Irish Times / Aer Lingus international fiction prize from President Mary Robinson, he could be forgiven a little self-congratulation. It's been a more than usually arduous route from his earliest steps along the literary road. Norman Rush is now 59, and although this is not the first novel he's produced, it's the first to see the light of publication. The earliest was written 40 years ago in a prison in Tucson, Arizona, where Rush spent nine months for refusing the draft for the Korean war. He had to smuggle it out: 'First I tried to get a visitor to take it out concealed in a loo roll. Then I copied it out on to onion- skin paper and stuck it behind the flaps on my Christmas cards.'

Unfortunately, the book didn't altogether deserve such care. 'It was in a genre that I thought would be very popular,' he says with heavy irony, 'a new genre, the non-violent thriller. A hopelessly silly idea.' Rush then spent many years working on highly experimental prose. 'Wonderful fun to write,' he comments laconically. 'Not much fun to read,' and then wrote another unpublished bildungsroman while trying to earn a living as an antiquarian book-dealer and a teacher. It wasn't until he and his wife Elsa decided to strike out from the States that he found his real voice.

That was in 1977, when they applied to a Peace Corps programme. The Corps (the American equivalent of Voluntary Service Overseas) was looking for very particular types: couples who had been married for over 20 years with a history of work-sharing, to head up some important projects in Africa. The Rushes were the first on the scheme, overseeing a huge programme in Botswana from training secondary school teachers to getting water piped to outlying villages. 'We couldn't have lived with ourselves if we hadn't gone,' Rush says, although they exchanged reasonably secure American lifestyles for five solid years of hardship. Still, you give and you get. In one bound, Rush escaped the literary enclaves of Manhattan and all their subjectless wannabes; and found his themes in the extraordinary lives led by Africa's whites.

Despite the foreign subject matter, Mating is a novel that jumps off the page and into the heart. Narrated by a bright unnamed woman living on her wits in Eighties Botswana, it rushes along on a hungry, intimate stream of consciousness that never wavers. Some reviewers found the extravagance of her style disturbing, with its moments of lyrical brevity ('Kang has douceur,' ran one complete sentence: 'Tsau, the omphalos of my idioverse', another); dense intellectual argument, high-handed humour and passages of remarkable prescience. And as soon as I mention the book's linguistic brio, Rush seems eager to explain it away: 'That's the narrator's fault, the extravagant use of language. She is an underclass person who has figured out there is a route upwards, a way of escape. Part of that is getting command of language, using it better than the people that oppress you, becoming a dominator of language.'

Rush is ill at ease with too much emphasis on verbal gamesmanship, the field he has so gloriously conquered in Mating. When we're talking about other books, he says of Nabokov: 'I admire - but I can't always sympathise . . . It's hard not to be too conscious of what he's aware he can do, as a writer.' Although such criticisms can be levelled at Mating, what makes Rush's novel unique is not simply its style - which, after all, was glancingly suggested in his good but forgettable story collection, Whites - but its sense of total engagement, moral, intellectual and emotional.

Mating is a love story in which a spirited woman meets a development worker named Nelson Denoon, whom she believes to be her true mate; she follows him through Botswana to live on his experimental development project, a feminist-anarchist community called Tsau. Perhaps the first truly grown-up love story ever told, the romance takes place on all levels; intellectual and sexual, argumentative and emotional, against the background of this concretely imagined Utopian experiment. But towards the end comes a tragic bouleversement, when Nelson Denoon spends some days lost in the desert, undergoes a bizarre, quasi-religious transformation and drifts into passivity.

The terror and importance of this event goes deep, both in Mating and in Norman Rush's life. For him, it is clearly the central tragedy of our age, the total ease of giving up. His father, for instance, started out as a secular socialist: 'For a long time he was just living on subsistence payments, from the socialist party,' Rush says proudly. 'But after the general strike in 1934 my mother insisted he get a regular job. And his eventual development was away from socialism and towards religion - Rosicrucianism, and theosophy. This became a persistent puzzle to me, all my life. What I had absorbed from him was the protest of socialism, and although he never explicitly abandoned it - in practice, he did.'

Later, Rush felt he had found another mentor, in the shape of Kenneth Rexroth, who 'was connected with the Beat scene, and that enclave in San Francisco that was affected by anarchist ideas. He was a compelling figure - a polymath, a poet, had a salon, and represented a kind of independent radicalism that was very attractive to me.' While Rush was in jail he corresponded with Rexroth, but 'in retrospect, he turned out not to be what he appeared to be either. He ended up in the hands of the Jesuits.'

Rush is unapologetic about taking such things seriously. At a time of almost universal cultural disdain for individual protests, Rush's voice cries in the wilderness. He fell out with his son just recently, over the Gulf war. While Norman was out marching with his placards, his 36-year-old son stayed away: 'It was very painful. His attitude was just of giving up, not protesting, being vaguely sympathetic to the war aims.' So Nelson Denoon is partly Rush's father, partly Kenneth Rexroth, and all those men who have disappointed and puzzled him, but he is also Rush himself. At one point, as we discuss American culture, Rush bemoans its predatory nature - stemming, he feels, from the lack of unsupervised group play among white American children. I could let it pass, but the echoes are too strong: 'Society is converging to suppress unsupervised mass play,' Denoon says at one point in Mating. 'If you leave young males alone they will go in play situations from fascism to feudalism to democracy. So now there is a diffuse and thwarted attraction to fascism getting played out at the adult level.' Rush laughs when I point it out. 'Of course he has some of me. Some political obsessions, interests . . .'

The template for the heroine-narrator is simpler. It is Elsa, Rush's wife. 'The novel would have been impossible if I hadn't been married to Elsa,' Rush says directly. 'She has always been a critical intellectual presence in my life. In a way I was rewriting, re-experiencing, a long experience of negotiation between us.'

Rush has reached his happy ending, now: 'I feel extremely happy,' he says without smiling, 'I might have said that before in my life, but it wouldn't have been entirely true. Until you feel a realisation of your power, we're not made to be happy.' But his novel has no real ending. The last pages echo and re-echo in the reader's mind, as the narrator, now back in the States, contemplates returning to Denoon: 'What is to be done?' she asks over and over, with bristling poignancy. Anyone who reads it will be apprehensive and delighted at the news that a kind of answer is coming: Rush is already hard at work on his next novel, which is also set in Botswana, with a different central character and rather harsher themes of violence and insurrection. 'There will be valedictory appearances by characters from Mating. You will even find out the woman's name - and the ultimate fate of Tsau and of those two characters.'

So Rush presses on, quiet in his attic in rural America, refining the voices that save him from passivity: 'I want to rehabilitate political seriousness,' he says, with such gentle sincerity that you nod in agreement, 'to show that it's not silly to think seriously about how we should live, that people who do this are not fools.'

(Photograph omitted)

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