Paperback Roundup

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The Independent Culture
War with the Newts by Karel Capek, Penguin pounds 7.99. If people have heard of Capek, it is as the author of RUR, the satirical science-fiction novel that gave the world the word "robot", or The Makropulos Case, the play about immortality which was turned into an opera by Janacek. War with the Newts has been rather neglected by comparison, partly because its story of sub-human slaves turning on their masters is a little too close to the plot of RUR. In this story, a new species of giant intelligent salamander is discovered struggling to survive in a bay on a South Pacific island, unable to defend itself against attack from sharks. Given knives to fight the sharks, their numbers increase rapidly and the newts spread; they become a novelty, then a craze, then a source of cheap labour. And the evidence that they are at least as intelligent as humans is tactfully ignored, until it's too late to do anything about it.

The message is pretty blunt, but that doesn't stop it being true; and Ivan Klima's introduction persuasively puts the case for regarding Capek as one of the great literary moralists of our century. What makes it enjoyable is the way Capek do the police in different voices - scientific papers, minutes of a business meeting, newspaperese, and so forth, the different styles matched here by different typefaces. This 1937 translation - no indication of the translator's name - sometimes reads creakily, but it's still a minor masterpiece, worth rediscovering.

Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918 ed Elleke Boehmer, Oxford pounds 7.99. When we talk about the literature of Empire, we tend to have in mind writing with an imperialist, jingoistic slant: Kipling in his more unpleasant moods, taking up the white man's burden and sneering at the "Eurasian" for being neither one thing nor the other. He gets space in here, along with Livingstone on meeting Stanley, Stanley on meeting Livingstone, a ripping yarn by G A Henty, Alfred Austin, Henry Newbolt ("Play up! play up! and play the game!") and Mrs Ernest Ames's quite mind- boggling "ABC for Baby Patriots" ("A is the Army that dies for the Queen;/ It's the very best Army that ever was seen").

But this anthology tries to reflect the whole experience of empire, not just the imperial enthusiasm. So we get Australian republican balladeers and short-story writers, Canadian outdoors enthusiasts, West African intellectuals, Hindu poets and philosophers, and a whole range of opinion. Boehmer demonstrates how complex the British Empire was, and how much tension and ambivalence can be found in even the most straightforwardly imperialist writing (well, possibly not Mrs Ernest Ames). A generous, intelligent collection, packed with rarities and good writing.

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki trs Jesse L Byock, Penguin pounds 7.99. Norse sagas can make for very puzzling reading, and King Hrolf Kraki - really a medieval descendant of the classical Viking product - is no exception. Take the episode where Hjalti (formerly known as Hott, but it's all far too complicated to explain here) spots enemy soldiers mustering near his mistress's house. He asks her which is better, two 22-year-old men or one 80-year-old? When she not unnaturally plumps for the two young ones, he calls her a whore and bites her nose off. Go figure. Elsewhere, though, the text reads like a missing link between Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry and medieval chivalric romance: the subplot involving the bear-like hero Bodvar Bjarki is a rerun of Beowulf, while the story of King Hrolf and his champions looks forward to Malory (you can also see where Tolkien got one or two ideas, though that's not necessarily a plus). Mainly, though, it's a ripping read.

Davy Crockett by Constance Rourke, Bison pounds 11.95. Crockett is one of those rare figures who straddle history and folklore. A frontiersman and hunter of legendary skill, he was elected to Washington where he became known as "the coonskin Congressman", and was a pioneering campaigner for Indian rights and equitable land distribution (though he failed in both causes); aged 50, he rode to Texas to join in the war against Mexico, and was killed at the Alamo. But tall stories and folk-tales clustered round him - he was supposed to have been cradled in a snapping turtle's shell, and raccoons were so frightened of his marksmanship they would climb down the trees and give themselves up without a shot being fired. Rourke's biography, first published in 1934, is a classic analysis of history and myth.

Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees by Patricia Duncker, Picador pounds 5.99.From the author of Hallucinating Foucault, a collection of tricksy, politically sharp-edged short stories dealing with abusive husbands and oppressive patriarchies, and the liberated, "uncanny" lives of lesbians in the South of France. The best of them are tinged with an appealingly idiosyncratic magic realism. To be perfectly honest, it is hard for the heterosexual male to feel very at home with Duncker: reading this, I get a glimpse of what plantation owners must have felt when they read Uncle Tom's Cabin. That probably isn't the best analogy in the world; then again, maybe it is, and Duncker's right.

Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson, Vintage pounds 7.99.Deepak Kulkani froze to death on Everest, 30 yards from another expedition; other mountaineers saw him waving and knew he was alive yet made no attempt to rescue him or ease his last hours. Taking this as his starting-point, Simpson has produced a polemic on the state of modern mountaineering - he sees the ethic which bound the mountain-climbing fraternity together being killed by greed and ambition. It's not entirely convincing as an argument, if only because the selfless, fraternal side of mountaineering has always been in tension with its individualism. The stories, of heroism and cowardice, are gripping, though; and the questions it raises are questions for the whole of society, not just the mountain nuts.

Robert Hanks