The Music in My Head by Mark Hudson (Jonathan Cape, pounds 10.99)

Wednesday's book

The official narrative of Eighties pop music recalls the smooth surface of a culture dazzled by Wham!'s teeth and Boy George's frocks, but behind the scenes seekers after substance were trawling considerably farther and wider.

One much-travelled path attracted those who believed that, in Karen Blixen's favourite aphorism from Pliny the Younger, there was "out of Africa always something new". The protagonist and unreliable narrator of journalist Mark Hudson's first novel is a writ-large portmanteau of the critics, DJs, record producers and entrepreneurs who spent the decade replying to any prediction of the Next Big Thing with "No, man, African music".

Andy "Litch" Litchfield is a dishevelled middle-aged hustler with a massive record collection where his life should be. He is a producer, promoter and publicist whose self-assigned mission is to bring contemporary African pop to the world; a tireless quester for the Perfect Beat who seems to have wandered in from a Martin Amis novel.

In the opening sections, the author lights a fire under Litch and spends the next 371 pages unravelling him from the inside as he arrives in a fictional but lovingly evoked chunk of Francophone West Africa for a conference with Sajar Jopp, "Africa's greatest musician", whose cause he had championed back in the Eighties.

He expects - nay, demands - to be welcomed and feted for his role in bringing Sajar Jopp to the attention of a global audience. Instead, the great man's entourage react to his arrival first with indifference, and subsequently with outright hostility. His plans begin a slow-motion collapse and, gradually, so does his sense of self.

In terms of surface rhetoric, Litch's position on all things African is an impeccably gung-ho and PC espousal of the most high-minded anti- racist and anti-colonialist principles.

In practice, the gap between perception and reality widens into an abyss. The classic expropriators of colonial history looted and occupied Africa for its material and human wealth, in search of profit; Litch, by contrast, pillages the continent for its cultural and spiritual wealth, in search of love. But he has done his job too well: Sajar Jopp no longer needs him, and once that need has disappeared, the pretence that there is any bond between them proves to be unsustainable.

Litch is a marvellous creation: his motor-mouthed music-biz babble delivers Hudson's pitiless tale in a voice that will be uncomfortably familiar to those who have professionally used it in the past. The book has its longueurs, but it's an admirably uncomfortable read: a microcosmic preview of what post-colonial "reconciliation" will mean in the post-millennial world.

Charles Shaar Murray

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