Postcards from an artist in recovery : BOOKS

A FAREWELL TO PRAGUE by Desmond Hogan, Faber £8.99
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EVEN when it involves eloquent Irishmen, I confess my heart sinks to see a blurb-line such as this book's: "composed from a series of intense, almost poetical fragments, reflecting the scattered nature of the writer's life". This sort of thing usually means (a) you can whistle for a plot- line and (b) you may have to suspend normal brain function to get on the author's wave-length.

Well (a) certainly does apply here. Instead of plot we get a kind of narrative jet-lag, shuttling hectically between the narrator's favourite travel destinations over two decades of restless migration. And this is no sequential picaresque adventure: as in, then he went to Italy, then California, then the American Deep South, then Poland. No, this is a different detached anecdote or image from a different journey literally on every page. It's like a brisk shuffle of a large stack of postcards. Chronologically DIY.

In part Desmond Hogan is indeed illustrating the fragmented artistic vision of his first-person narrator, also called Desmond. And partly he is adopting that other scatty literary stance: the artist as convalescent from a mental breakdown. Narrator Des had a fierce clinical depression in the mid-1970s and his treatment in a Dublin mental hospital is one of the few anchored points around which all other thematic flotsam washes. Add to this a crisis over his sexual identity and a major bereavement, and you begin to see why the narrative view is so shattered and kaleidoscopic.

Hogan can - and does, frequently - write like an angel, marshalling into a paragraph tension and imagery that would nourish a healthy short story. He has a lip-smacking way with colour: a street is "amber, buff, pistachio", or has "peach roofs and marzipan buildings". He conjures des-criptions a reader would fall on in gratitude if they embellished some larger discernible action.

But to leave it for 150 pages before actual patterns, or even a metaphorical rationale for all the to-ing and fro-ing, emerge seems almost too arrogant. At last we hear of "collages" being made of the travels, "the labyrinth of stories of people whose lives you touch ... so that your mind becomes like a polychromatic Irish pub".

The thing about pubs, polychromatic or otherwise, is that people may just pop in for a quick one rather than stay until closing time. Readers could nibble a Czech, Irish or San Franciscan titbit here and head elsewhere for a meal. Having stayed for the last call, I can report that Hogan does offer rich cumulative insights: into recent changes in Eastern Europe, the lot of the gay itinerant Irishman in London and beyond and, most movingly, into the loss of love (for both sexes) through desertion and death. These insights were obviously hard-won, but that's no reason to make them so hard to share. James Joyce is supposed to have said it took him 20 years to write Finnegan's Wake so it could take us 20 years to read it. This principle only applies to James Joyce.