Books: Freedom of the pressed

THE CATTLE KILLING by John Edgar Wideman Picador pounds 16.99
Within the greater story of the African diaspora, John Edgar Wideman's new novel is not one but many stories, all encompassed by the life of a freed slave turned preacher. Attempting to bridge continents and centuries, the preacher's tales range from the Xhosa lore that gives his book its title to the underworld of the English Enlightenment. The setting is 1790s Philadelphia, an unsettled time and place. The city is recovering from an outbreak of the plague, and an emergent society of black Americans is being greeted by a muddle of fear, brutality and often dubious philanthropy.

While nursing a sick woman, the preacher tells her about a series of characters he has met whose stories extend and support one another in the building of an allegorical whole. You can sense an Old English approach to the didactic, Bunyan or Chaucer, beneath the American fluidity of Wideman's style. The preacher, travelling through a forest in winter, comes across a dying man in a shack and stops to build him a fire. Later, he himself is rescued from freezing death. A woman who visits orphanages but doesn't see the squalor and terror in which the children live is literally as well as figuratively blind.

There is the mysterious African woman he meets carrying a dead white baby. He walks with her to a river into which she disappears. There is Rowe, a beatific churchgoer whose happiness turns out to be a fantasy of bloody revenge on the whites who tortured him and killed his family.

The couple who rescued the preacher from the snow are a slave freed in England by George Stubbs, and his white wife who was a maid in Liverpool. The former slave, also called Stubbs, recalls carrying a dead horse upstairs for his master, being given a Wedgwood plate of a black servant as a memento and attending an auction for the body of a pregnant black woman, ostensibly required for artistic and anatomical ends.

Like David Dabydeen in his sequence of poems, Turner, Wideman uses the representation of the slave in art to explore the treatment of the slave as object. Unfortunately, the scope of his novel does not allow room to go into this in depth, and the odd facts and anecdotes we are given do not convey enough.

Wideman contrives to let us know how hard it is for a book to measure up to such a subject. His anxiety is uncomfortably obvious in the way in which the novel is framed: the opening pages describe the author visiting his father to read him the book; in the epilogue, he receives an adulatory letter about it from his son. The whole is over-connected, the pleasure of its resonances spoiled by their being spelt out. Repetition can enlarge meaning, but when the word "plague" crops up eight times in a single page its impact quickly fizzles out.

Much of the book is written in a soft, elliptical, lyrical manner, irrespective of what is happening or who is speaking. It lulls our disturbance and also our curiosity. But the main difficulty with The Cattle Killing is that its central character, the preacher, is so entirely a vehicle for those whose stories he tells that he fails to come to life. He provides neither counterpoint nor coherence, but is simply a route into others who are more interesting.