Books: A shot of gin and Um Bongo

A new collection of stories evokes the shade of Chekhov. Nicholas Wroe is impressed
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The Independent Culture
The Lady with the Laptop and Other Stories by Clive Sinclair, Picador, pounds 12.99

Maxim Gorky wrote to Chekhov after the publication of "Lady with Lapdog" to describe his short stories as, "exquisite cut-glass bottles with all the different scents of life in them." Clive Sinclair may not give us all the different scents in his The Lady with the Laptop but he confidently provides more than enough to justify his staggering chutzpah in reminding readers of Chekhov with the title of his new collection of stories.

Chekhov actually gets short shrift in the title story. First he is compared unfavourably to the Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and then mistaken for "that silly character in Star Trek". This sort of double whammy - erudition followed by a savvy populism - is refreshingly typical of Sinclair.

On one page in this collection, a statement of Jehovah's status as an "invisible abstraction" actually shares space with a description of a woman exposing her bra while drinking a gin and Um Bongo.

"The Lady with the Laptop" is set around the Women's World Population Conference in Egypt where a misogynistic, small-time playwright (his most successful work was about a vacuum cleaner, Mourning Becomes Electrolux, because Cairo, like the Yalta of Chekhov's story, is very dusty) is assigned to look after an Israeli delegate. His view of his country, and his place in it, is very different to that of the woman he escorts as he silently observes that "these peasants may not own a bean and be blessed with the intellects of donkeys, but they have loyal women. My wife serve me lunch? I'm lucky if she throws it at me."

The story takes in the intervention of Islamic terrorists, memories of a woman who died of cancer and, being Sinclair, a quest for Jane Fonda's autograph. It ends in a neatly ironic flourish that is both touching and clever.

A secondary character from the title story crops up again in "Smart Alecks'', a tale of two, very different, cousins chatting over the strange way things turn out in a prison visiting room. Noah, whose wife recently died of cancer, has come back from a trip to Egypt where his young daughter was injured by Islamic terrorists. He visits Nathan, whose attempts to deny his Mill Hill kosher butcher background have lead him to an unsuccessful raid on the Kensington Safe Deposit Company. Noah berates himself for using the death of his wife as a seduction technique - the gin and Um Bongo woman is his daughter's teacher. Nathan faces the fact that an unreliable partner-in-crime's father was also a butcher; a Lebanese warlord who enthusiastically massacred Palestinian refugees in Beirut under the blind eye of the Israeli army.

In the final long story the Israeli/ Lebanese war is again obliquely represented. "The Iceman Cometh" is set in Ashkenazia, a country waging a terrible war against its neighbours Ishmalyia. As the nation becomes more uneasy about the justice of the war, so each Ashkenazi atrocity that's committed reverberates around the region before impacting, with a Biblical sense of retribution, on their own civilian populace.

The three shorter pieces in the book are equally enjoyable, informed by Sinclair's habitual lively handing and concerned with the same underlying themes. The complex issues of fertility and of race are explored, from the provenance of the traditional English Christmas dinner to the purity of the gene pool.

Jewishness and Zionism are thoughtfully probed and the notion of the appropriateness of motivation is slyly subverted. Sinclair matches his brisk and original intelligence with an abundant yet sharply controlled prose that makes The Lady with the Laptop a hugely enjoyable and stimulating collection.