Taking the Kombi to the wonga vine

Bee-keeping hippies in New South Wales? Who cares, says Hugo Barnacle; The Glade Within the Grove David Foster Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99

You can bet that a novel calling itself The Glade Within the Grove will deal, in some probably obscure way, with the ritual goings-on in the Sacred Grove of Diana at Nemi, as detailed by Sir James Frazer in his archaeo-anthropological classic The Golden Bough, best remembered as a source for The Waste Land. I forget who coined the phrase "bitten by the Golden Bow-Wow" to describe writers who become preoccupied with this subject, but it seems particularly appropriate in David Foster's case, because, like his narrator, D'Arcy D'Oliveres, he is a former postman.

D'Arcy, now retired from his New South Wales rounds, happens to own the sole copy of an epic poem called "The Ballad of Erinungarah". He found it in the post, addressed "To Whom It May Concern." It tells the story of a hippie commune which was established in a secluded NSW valley in 1968 and broke up about 20 years later. The men mostly got tired of all the promiscuous sex, castrated themselves and turned into trees like the ancient god Attis. The children of course moved to Sydney as soon as they were old enough.

The poem was written by a commune member, now in an asylum. Having located him and other survivors, D'Arcy tells the story himself, largely in reconstructed dialogue, with added digressions on the history of the potato, the fitting of penis rings, beekeeping and anything else that crops up.

Unfortunately this Shandyesque method means that after 400-odd pages, when lung cancer stops him writing any more, D'Arcy has only covered the first year of the commune's existence. Nothing much actually happens except a few arguments and a battery-charging problem with the VW Kombi van. (There is a local killer on the loose, but he turns out to be a bit of a non-sequitur.) All the rest we have to gather from footnotes and asides.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to gather anything. In the long dialogue passages, Foster never says who is speaking. He just prints the lines and you try to work it out for yourself. He seldom says what the characters are doing, either. Nor is it always clear where they are or how they got there.

Interior settings consist of lists of objects, exterior settings of botanical names: "Cockspur, blushing bindweed, wonga vine. Higher up, on the dry ridge, hickory wattle, cranberry heath, Swainson pea, slender bitter pea, prickly shaggy pea, leafless sourbrush."

There are innumerable clevernesses that don't quite come off. D'Arcy, explaining the importance of trees to the climate, says, "Irish weather has steadily deteriorated over the past 1000 years...since the coming of the Celt, with his iron axe." But the Celts came to Ireland more like 2000 years ago.

Or again, "According to Mark, whose Gospel was the first Gospel to appear, the Incarnation of Christ occurred at the moment of Baptism...His Mother is of no more concern to me than the woman next door." But the idea of Incarnation does not appear in the Gospels at all, and was only confirmed as doctrine by the Council of Chalcedon in 351.

Or again, "Perusal of Malory's Morte D'Arthur...We read where Lancelot, wounded in battle, lay with Queen Guenevere all night, but both denied adultery when sprung the next day. He probably didn't put it in."

But Malory says, "sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the quene and toke no force of hys hurte honde, but toke hys pleasaunce and hys lykynge untyll hit was the dawnyng of the day," which hardly sounds like a nuit blanche. And he didn't hurt his hand in battle, he did it breaking in through the window, which also suggests he meant business.

Or again, Eugene the American deserter says of his time as a GI in Vietnam, "And people don't seem to know what I've been through, you know?...The noise from those B52s!"

Very funny, except that the B52s were stationed in Thailand and Guam, far from Vietnam, and over the war zone they cruised eight miles high, notoriously inaudible from the ground. It was their silence that made them so sinister.

Almost all the book's smart-alec observations come unstuck one way or another. But at least it makes for consistency of tone, and it may be part of an ironic post-modern strategem, along with the sexist treatment of the women characters and the prevailing absence of point, intended as a comment on the sloppymindedness of hippies. Hard to say, or care.

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