Books: Spongiform delights

An African bushman in England falls for a bishop's daughter's bottom. Christopher Hawtree looks on; Darkest England by Christopher Hope Macmillan, pounds 15.99

Her Majesty's troubles are fiction. On the page, she has endured a bite from a rabid corgi (in Adam Mars-Jones's Lantern Lecture) and dinner with Paul Theroux - and is now the object of the peculiar quest that is Darkest England. Christopher Hope is a novelist with a Burgessian relish of new forms, varied narration. The downside of this is that, for every such sprightly vehicle like A Separate Development and The Hottentot Room, along comes a Kruger's Alp - that well-nigh impenetrable allegory which can have been read only by those who felt obliged to award it a prize.

This time, in Darkest England, Hope's fabular vein is again opened up, only to give us the bloodless fantasy of the odyssey made by the present- day descendant of the African Bushmen visited by such explorers as Park and Livingstone. Our man is called David Booi - go on, say it, whatever the risk of wary glances from those within earshot (the singer's enthusiasm for African art is well known, but Hope's choice of this name is surprising in somebody who has collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin).

Much of what follows is on the punning plane of invention. Booi is in thrall to the Britain of Empire and, a century on, takes literally the promise made by Queen Victoria to support all her subjects. He is here on a mission to discover whether England will be, in its turn, a suitable home for his people. All this is told in style which falls somewhere between 19th-century elaboration and contemporary demotic, neither of which springs naturally from his lips.

Such wide-eyed naivety, some way after Candide, takes him via the prison which he believes to have been indeed Her Majesty's Pleasure, and then on to - oh dear - Little Musing and a certain fundamental obsession with the daughter of a bishop. ``That magnificent plateau, that great fleshy magnificence of her posterior, that spongiform delight, those two fat heifers harnessed to a lovely plough... the solid, rubbery bounce of each hemisphere.'' This is hardly Nabokov or Updike and, 20 pages on, he has another attempt at metaphor as the skirt lifts on these ``magnificent buttocks. Have you ever seen two fat rain clouds, bursting with the liquid of life, bowling along the horizon, pushed by a stiff breeze which palpitates and juggles and kneads these precious containers...? Well, that is the sight I saw before me.''

Evidently, he is going to be all the more prone to trouble. Still, along the harum-scarum way of this oh-so-arch narrative there are some touches, such as his dressing to "show the English that I came of a people wealthy enough to equip a traveller in purest polyester" and his declaiming of a passport's florid inscription to a bemused airport official. He is given to rhetorical flourishes. "To live in England requires a kind of resolution that people from older, freer cultures know little about."

This gets numbing as Booi crosses an alien and displeasing land, but gains a certain force as he reaches the capital. Here he finds that, yes, Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl and does have a lot to say (and her husband chips in his twopenn'orth).

Even so, most readers should make their excuses and hasten instead to that club for exiles in Earl's Court which was the locale of Hope's excellent novel The Hottentot Room, a product of the Eighties that is serious funny.

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