The mother of all baffles

The Days of Miracles and Wonders by Simon Louvish, Canongate, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Simon Louvish must have been dreading this moment. It was in these pages that he gave Tibor Fischer's The Collector Collector such a rubbishing ("this book is truly terrible") that he must have been living in fear of either a nocturnal visit from a thought-gang of Hungarian hitmen or a tit-for-tat review by Fischer of The Days of Miracles and Wonders. But Louvish got lucky. He got me. Well, maybe not that lucky.

"How do you describe the indescribable?" asks the blurb. Good question. In essence, this is a novel about western hypocrisy in the Gulf War, but the fall of the communist regimes and an engaging sub-plot about a frustrated author with murderous intentions towards his former publisher are also entangled. After having read the entire 440 pages, I would have a job to tell you much more than that about what is actually going on. There's the return of Avram Blok, from Louvish's previous novels: this time, he's a therapist in an East London sanatorium. There is, bewilderingly, a part for Richard the Lionheart and a role for Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance. And there's a kidnapping.

What Louvish has in spades is ideas. Danny Hohenlohe, the embittered writer, used to have plenty as well. He even reveals their source: "an old Chinese hock shop on Orchard Street, Lower East Side New York. The proprietor was a very old man who had been an aide-de-camp to Chiang Kai- shek ... Now he sold notions to novelists and short-story writers in little bottles and flasks".

Now, I get my ideas from passenger jets en route to Heathrow which drop them through the skylight in my loft, and I have to wonder if Louvish lives under the same flightpath. But I don't only like his ideas for having had a couple of them myself (the dream in which the Ceausescus commandeer the dreamer's car and the image of a dead man playing the clarinet will be familiar to readers of my last novel, Saxophone Dreams. I blame morphic resonance).

Louvish's prose is energetic and flexible, well up to the challenge posed by its freight of ideas and subject matter, particularly the byzantine world of Middle Eastern politics and the Gulf War. He possesses an enviable range of voice-tones and a useful command of irony. "I adore the English" says one character. "Your Pilkington night-sights are an invaluable asset in the counter-insurgency field. Your Marconi smart mines are a whole generation ahead of your competitors". Some of his funniest moments come when he turns his gaze on Britain (and it's difficult to know where Louvish - born in Glasgow, raised in Jerusalem, resident in London - considers home). "Satellite-television salesmen pile out of a Volkswagen van with striped shirts and peaked red caps, grabbing unwary passersby and forcing them, by painful judo holds, to accept free subscriptions to extra-terrestrial broadcasts, by a newstand poster which proclaims: SADDAM GIVEN LAST CHANCE".

The Gulf War is always crackling in the background, but given the cacophony of voices (you will lose count of the number of narrators) and the madcap grab-bag nature of the novel, it's hard for long stretches to stay with the plot. Not even an apprenticeship spent ploughing through the nouveaux romans of Nathalie Sarraute and the later works of Robbe-Grillet will quite prepare you for The Days of Miracles and Wonders. Which is a shame, because when you've hacked your way through the undergrowth and finally reached a clearing in the text, it's a relief to be mugged by the sudden clarity of the writing, and by the emotional impact of the hostage release and the famously ruthless Allied attack on a Mecca-bound column. The last thing on Louvish's mind should be shooting editors; with the help of one, this could have been a masterpiece.

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