Wolf in a dust jacket

The Little Book by David Hughes Hutchinson, pounds 9.99 A book about a magic book that changes lives yet is trashed by the callow literary machine? Come come, says Hugo Barnacle
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Convalescing on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1991, after an operation to remove a cancerous kidney, David Hughes reflects on "how agonising it was in life ever to think how little time was directly spent on living'', and reaches the Proustian conclusion that "life and time existed only to have stories spun out of them.'' This is a memoir of that summer, written for his wife, who is addressed as 'you' throughout.

In between picnic lunches, yacht-club regattas, sightseeing and nervously keeping up with the news of an escaped killer on the run from Parkhurst, Hughes imagines writing a short, perfect novel called The Little Book which speaks to its readers with magical, telepathic directness and changes lives. Events surrounding the book's publication are described in fictional sequences. Hughes doesn't actually quote any of the book's amazing prose, but he assures us and Mrs H. that it's great stuff.

He also imagines his publisher's sexy bitch of a PR girl agreeing with him. As she tells a journalist in bed, having lunched and "cabbed at speed back to her flat'' for sex in a manner which Hughes thinks is typical of media people but which is more stereotypical, "It's not a book. It's a ravening wolf. It chases you through the dark forests of yourself.'' This is not intended as a humorous parody of PR talk. Hughes repeats and embellishes the wolf image in his own voice elsewhere in the text. To some extent he gets away with it, and much more besides, by maintaining an eloquent flow of language, but there is still a certain clumsiness in expressing the concept of untamed truth by recourse to a conventional fallacy. Even starving wolves are reluctant to attack humans and it is hard to find a single recorded case of it.

On the subject of critics and their niggling points, Hughes explains how, being a work of transcendent genius, the imaginary book inevitably gets a bad press. "A review or two sluggishly appeared. They displayed a bitterly judicial tact, as though edging customers away from a product that might trouble them.'' This contrasts nicely with the glowing notices for Hughes's best-known work, The Pork Butcher, quoted on the back of the real book's dust jacket, but again no humour is intended.

He then pictures the launch party in Covent Garden, attended by people who hold Oxford professorships and jobs in the Cabinet, "positions I might easily have filled'' (Oh might you?), as well as by those "others I so despised'', the gilded dross of literary London, everyone grabbing their free copy and "intending to read it as soon as they came home from the opera or finished a session with a girl.''

When the public get hold of the book, many pack in their jobs or commit suicide, unable to bear the revelation of how trivial their existence is. Hughes wonders, "was this state of affairs no more than some self- aggrandising fantasy of the author's, whoever he was?'' It does look that way. Hughes never admits that he could not produce such a potent masterpiece for real; he says he chooses not to: "Writing it down might reduce it.''

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, of course, but we only have Lao-Tzu's word that the eternal Tao amounts to anything. A sense of enlightenment does not imply any actual discovery: when we wake feeling euphoric and inspired, it does not mean the brilliant idea we've had in a dream will prove to be other than twaddle.

Hughes likens the imaginary book to the improvised music he plays on church organs, a fair enough example of "an idea that can't be put into words.'' He does, however, give a few paraphrases of the book's mysterious message. It is against consumerism and the keeping up of "needless appearances.'' It rejects blind chance in favour of people "unconsciously choosing their own destinies'', a standard reactionary view.

But what is it all about? "Looking back,'' says Hughes , "I have really no idea.'' Perhaps it's about wondering what it's all about, a state often brought on by illness and advancing age. The keenness with which the transient pleasures of summer are evoked, in the basic narrative, suggests as much.