Sunday 29 June 1997
Cosi Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin, Faber pounds 5.99. As a newcomer to the adventures of Italian cop Aurelio Zen, I can't report on any significant character developments in this fifth novel. He appears to be a foxy operator whose effectiveness is a tad undermined by good food and wine, a domineering mother and a fondness for playing the puppet-master. Posted out of harm's way to an agreeably cushy position on the Naples waterfront, Zen has time on his hands to promote a scheme aimed at preventing two nubile sisters from marrying their unsuitable boyfriends - "a pair of typical middle-management hoodlums". This pleasant little conspiracy, a twist on the plot of Mozart's opera, involves fixing the boyfriends up with a pair of hookers masquerading as Albanian refugees, but a political hit- squad at work in the city and a US matelot gone AWOL provide Zen with unwelcome and potentially fatal distractions. This deviously intricate, operatically improbable and vastly entertaining comedy of murder and omerta will slip nicely into the summer's luggage.
Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice by Hella Pick, Phoenix pounds 7.99. In the world of Holocaust documentation and Nazi-hunting, Wiesenthal is a celebrated lone operator, a knight-errant in search of dragons to slay, but also of quarries more abstract and symbolic: justice and remembrance. His motive is not hatred, as one might expect, but grief: "Daily he relives his sufferings, he mourns his family murdered in the Holocaust." But this is not all hagiography. Pick notes the man's sentimentality and vainglory, as well as a tendency to see everything in black and white. The great controversies of his life receive full coverage - how far he was really responsible for the capture of Eichmann, his 20-year feud with Austria's Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky (a fellow Jew) and his attitude to Kurt Waldheim, whom Wiesenthal allegedly let off the war-crimes hook.
The Hours of the Night by Sue Gee, Arrow pounds 5.99. A taut daisy-chain of agonised artsy types laces together the plot of this Welsh border-country novel. Gillian Traherne, a dotty Stevie Smith-like poet, falls in love with hill-farming London runaway Edward Sullivan, who loves world-class tenor Rowland King, who fancies New Age composer Phil Dryhurst, who loves another London escapee, Nesta Franks. Such pulsations of love and desire made the book a natural for the Romantic Novelists' Association award, which it duly (though in some quarters controversially) won last year. To my eyes it seems a worthy winner. The pace is brisk, the absurdities of love are passed over and the multiple viewpoints nicely sustained. But an excellent romance is not always a good novel. The problems here are a humourless tone and character uniformity - every one a nice, practising social democrat from the Guardian's agony column. Even the one, small act of villainy by the tenor fizzles out apologetically.
The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr by R R Davies, Oxford pounds 9.99. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One it was Glyn Dwr who could "call spirits from the vasty deep"; he was also thought by his ally, the down-to-earth Hotspur, to be too "full of skimble-skamble stuff" to be an effective warrior. Yet he outlasted his mocker. Proclaimed a rebel Prince of Wales in 1400 (the future Henry V held the same title and held, too, more than two thirds of the country for England) Glyn Dwr inflicted a number of defeats on the English and ran an effective guerrilla campaign before overreaching himself. He'd lived in a sophisticated manor house with "a tiled roof and smoke-free chimney", held talks with the French and conducted himself as a substantial warlord. His nine-year revolt was the only serious military challenge ever mounted against the English in Wales - a Welsh Braveheart indeed.
Cold Snap by Thom Jones, Faber pounds 6.99. The American slob is often portrayed as a fat, sofa-bound moron, hoovering up snack food and sucking cans of Bud while watching a TV ball-game. But in Thom Jones's stories the species has moved on. Now the boys gross out on hypochondria, existential angst and African poverty. Pills are their potato chips - for diabetes, depression, persecution mania. Jones is assiduous in giving a context to his self- destructive motormouth males (in only two stories does he reach across the gender boundary). Most have been involved in aid work, so that Rwanda, Somalia and Zaire replace the previous generation's horrorshow of Nam. They are harsh, sometimes manipulative but always involving tales about men licked by the flames of hell and trying to stay anaesthetised.
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