Subversive sex in the savannah

The Ventriloquist's Tale by Pauline Melville, Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99; Paula Burnett enjoys a magic post-imperial riposte to Evelyn Waugh

This is a dazzling extension of Pauline Melville's territory. Her first book, Shapeshifter - a collection of stories which mine the strata of intercultural deposits linking Guyana and London - touched profundity through wit and precision. This first novel shows her confidently tunnelling under the ramparts of institutions and myths, to run out chuckling just before the charge goes off. Here, the empire writes back to Evelyn Waugh, to the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, to church, state and sexual mores, using a Guyanese, Amerindian culture to question western assumptions. Melville plays with conventions with all the grace and control of a cat with a bird.

At the start the parents of a small boy, Bla-Bla, discuss his future. Living on the savannah of up-country Guyana, following a mainly traditional way of life, they are present-day members of a family visited by Evelyn Waugh: the McKinnons, of Scottish and Wapisiana descent. Waugh's memoir of his journey to the South American interior mentions a Teddy Melville as his host; Pauline Melville's book thanks Chofoye Melville for lending his name to the novel's Chofoye McKinnon, Bla-Bla's father. This is a book about living tradition as a kind of echo-chamber, in which the intricacies of history reverberate.

It reels time like an angler. The story's narrator is a mythic figure. To people the world, like the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, he calls up the bones of the dead, who arrive "chattering". But this mythic astrology is brought bang up to date: the white noise picked up by radio telescopes is "the final wheeze of an enormous laugh".

Melville's narrator introduces himself in scintillating magic-realist style. But, as he points out, "Magic is private", and what is also needed for successful hunting is mimicry and camouflage. He intends to tell the main story in a "hard-nosed, tough-minded realism" - well, of a kind. All narration, he says, is "for revenge or tribute". This story of the McKinnons seems both a tribute to them and an attack on the language that deems them "primitive".

"Beyond the equator, everything is permitted." The Portuguese proverb introduces the novel's exotic eroticism. Early in the story, Bla-Bla's father - driven to the city by a harsh rural environment of drought, flood and vampire bats - declares his love for a newly met British-Jewish woman researching Evelyn Waugh. The narrative coolly refuses to indulge in foreplay. It just makes the history-reversing affair happen. At the opposite pole to this exogamy is the ultimate endogamy of incest, between a McKinnon brother and sister in the 1930s - the story Waugh supposedly chose not to use. The novel quotes Levi-Strauss on the pan-American myth of eclipse as incest between the sun and moon. The Wapisiana disapprove but accept that it happens, just as the west accepts that adultery happens.

The book's moral landscape is non-judgmental. Lust is taken on trust. A young Wapisiana girl is described discovering her sexuality alone, stimulated simply by the brilliance of nature, but the region reduced Waugh to boredom which he tackled by reading. He later wrote stories in which a guest is forced by an illiterate rancher to read Dickens aloud to him for ever. Melville's version deftly uncovers the self-deception that riddles this imperialist fantasy.

She offers no easy solutions, however, to the threat globalism poses to remote civilisations. At the finish Bla-Bla is dead, from a mining company's explosions. Ironic to the end, the symbolic narrative seems to paint a bleak future for the savannah's people. But there remains the hope that by listening to one another's narratives we might make our interaction benign. Like Quetzalcoatl's bone-people, the boy lives on in the telling. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war; or perhaps, in this quizzical mythography, "Bla-Bla" is in the ascendant over "Waugh-Waugh".

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