The Fountain at the Centre of the World by Robert Newman

Power but no glory in the new Mexico

Robert Newman's second novel is an unfashionable and spirited attempt to reconcile the larger forces at work in the world through fiction. Could this herald a resuscitation of the English "literary political novel", almost dead in the water since the best work of Malcolm Lowry and Graham Greene?

The story begins with Evan Hatch (with a name like that, we know he's the bad guy), a suited corporate soldier suffering from Chagas disease. Long the terror of health sections in Latin American guidebooks, Chagas is a beetle-borne ailment with no cure, apart from a bone-marrow transplant. In an antiseptic City office, Evan deter- mines to find a donor in the form of his lost brother in Mexico. Two more narrative threads emerge: that of Chano Salgado, a Mexican activist and homemade bomb-maker ("not terrorist", he insists in one of the many stilted and polemic exchanges) agitating against the corporate interests that Evan represents. And soon we meet Daniel, a Mexican orphan taken to Costa Rica, currently packing bell peppers for a multinational but determined to return.

The manner in which these disparate stories intertwine and clash is appealing. One cheers Newman's project to give life and voice to environmental degradation, neo-liberal economics and, on a more profound level, the cynicism that drives these forces of exploitation. Even better, he has set his schema in Mexico and Central America, the frontline, thanks to Nafta, of globalisation.

Such zestful fictionalising of wider realities is impossible to dismiss. Certainly, any novel that opens with a dig against Colombian president Pastrana and the "war on drugs" wins this reviewer's heart. But then there's the matter of what literary fiction is: that delicate, subversive terrain most fertile when doused with subjectivity. The Fountain at the Centre of the World creaks under the strain of theme and information.

What exactly is the place of essay-lets on bomb-making and tuna quotas in fiction? Sure, we admire the ploughing through Chomsky and Zinn. But the resulting hard fact is plonked on the page in a Greenpeace-vs-the-Foreign-Office manner that effectively cancels the reader-author contract. While Newman does give his characters an ostensible inner life, they lack the textures of psychological veracity which convinces us of lived experiences.

This marriage of the internal and subjective with external processes was the great achievement of the political novel, at least as penned by Lowry and Greene. Such a comparison is patently unfair, but then Newman must realise that he has to do more than step lightly in a land where stones are sharp. But he has at least taken a rare risk for our mortgage-panic, leather-sofa era, to remind us how the personal is political - and vice versa.

Jean McNeil's 'Private View' is published by Weidenfeld

Comments