Books: The beautiful dream that drove a divided soul

Thirty years after the civil rights leader's death, Brian Morton admires a fictional portrait of the heroic but haughty Martin Luther King; Dreamer by Charles Johnson Canongate, pounds 14.99, 236pp

A CHURCH in the Mid-West, in the dying half of the Sixties. Mostly black faces, the only exceptions a crush of press at the front and two FBI men, there to transcribe Martin Luther King's every word. Who did they think he was talking about? What went down in their uncomprehending shorthand? Did they think that "Whitehead" was just another uppity Negro term for The Man? Or was it what these incendiaries dared to call God Himself?

King was there not to preach, but to receive an award. Even in a simple vote of thanks, he could not bring himself to speak down to his constituency: "As Whitehead might put it, `I am' is an example of Misplaced Concreteness." Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher, of course.

Charles Johnson's novel tells us nothing of what goes on in the minds of King's enemies. By the logic of King's own beliefs, in loving them he also embraced their hostilities and fears. Dreamer is told in the voice of Matthew Bishop, a young worker in King's non-violence movement, and partly in King's own. As King speaks, Bishop cannot be sure if he is hearing the minister or his security "double" Chaym Smith, who minutes before succumbed to a panic attack. The prizegiving comes halfway through the book; it is not so much King's Calvary as Smith's. Minutes after the ceremony, the double has a second chance to impersonate King and is wounded - stigmatised - by a man with a grudge against preachers.

Johnson portrays King as a philosopher, an old soul, heir to many generations, and a man who has had to broker a new identity. Having distinguished between the public and private self, he comes to realise "that man and mask were fused". Basing his story on known fact, Johnson weaves a subtle and playful narrative. Arguably, though, it is Chaym and not King who is the central character. With his leg shredded by a landmine, Chaym is Oedipus: not erotically, but as a seeker after identity. The name seems to be pronounced "cham" (can this refer to another Johnson, Samuel, "The Great Cham"?), but it is also chaim - life. Smith is King's incarnated self, his life- as-lived rather than his life as a set of ideals. As such, he is tender, vulnerable, human: all the aspects of King which fail to manifest in his masked, public persona.

Johnson's writing is crisp, plain and unfussy, but peppered with unexpected turns of speech: a "tamasic" flush of sweat, a "melic" lift of speech. Dreamer is, not unexpectedly, a novel of ideas, but one with King's innate musicality. It is the most remarkable creative response to its subject since Berio's O King.

Berio did in music almost exactly what Johnson has done in prose, taking the incantatory quality of King's oratory, but also its curiously alien rhythms. This was a man who could quote Epictetus and Keats "as if they were first cousins", but who also seemed estranged from those around him, hypnotically grand. If there is a single justification for describing his assassination in 1968 as tragic, it is its inevitability; if there is a reason to call King saintly, it is his absolute refusal to hate. "I have no choice but to love others because I am the others."

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