BOOK REVIEW / Random bigot in search of earthly paradise: 'Jerusalem Commands' - Michael Moorcock: Cape, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
COLONEL Pyat, the protagonist of Michael Moorcock's new novel, wins a standing ovation for his dissertation, a 'precocious and sophisticated vision of an earthly paradise'. He is a romantic genius, an idealist inventor of aeroplanes and death rays, and a talented film-maker and actor. Born on 1 January 1900, his life is meant to personify the history of the 20th century. Wouldn't it be enthralling to spend a few hours, perhaps over dinner, in the company of this remarkable man?

But the problem with Col Pyat is not just that he is a bigot and a racist, but that he is, unforgivably, a formidable bore. He is a real test of patience - a test that most readers of Jerusalem Commands might well fail after only a few pages. And the trouble with the novel is that we have to put up with nearly 600 pages of ponderous prose simply to discover that Fascism is banal, pornography is evil and Orientalism is alive and kicking. Devotees of Michael Moorcock deserve much better.

Jerusalem Commands is the third volume in the Col Pyat quartet. Previous volumes have seen the anti-Semitic, Muslim-loathing, half-Jew, Ukrainian protagonist live and lie through the Russian revolution, European fascism and the American Ku Klux Klan. Here we find him train-jumping across America, making movies in Hollywood and Egypt, and living out a whole catalogue of Oriental perversions, licentiousness and violence.

In Egypt, he is forced to make a violent pornographic film and is then spirited away into the harem of a transvestite pander (appreciative nod by Moorcock towards his friend, the celebrated anti-porn campaigner, Andrea Dworkin, to whom the novel is dedicated). More perversions are to be had in the Sahara, with numerous and nasty Arab tribesmen. Eventually, the yarn plods towards a final encounter with the perverted 'Pasha of Marrakech'.

Col Pyat's adventures and escapes are punctuated with the reflections of our hero and backed by a potted history of the sort you can glean, in weekly parts, from some Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History. Not surprisingly, the history is as unreliable as Pyat himself. He is ever ready to blame everything on the Communists, Jews and the Muslims, while constantly assuring us that he was 'born without prejudice' and that he is 'a man of infinite tolerance and sensitivity' and so on, ad nauseam.

Is there some purpose behind the back- breaking banality of this sort of satire? We are supposed to believe that Fascism lurks behind everything and that it is much closer to us than we might imagine. Moreover, Moorcock thinks he is deconstructing every oriental adventure ever penned. But this deconstruction is so one-dimensional that we get little more than re-enactment of all the worst colonial and contemporary cliches in the orientalist tradition.

Pyat's distaste for the Orient and the 'Musselmans' actually makes sense, given the picture of the Orient and Muslim society that Moorcock gives. While Pyat finds redeeming features in blacks and Jews - despite his racism and anti- Semitism - all Muslims in the novel, as well as all Muslim environments, personify nothing less than motiveless evil. The civilised world gives them two choices: convert to Christianity or secularism or, in the words of Pyat, remain 'barbaric, backward, unenlightened'. Better still, kill yourselves with 'civil war'.

Thus Pyat tells us repeatedly throughout the novel that while he may share their outlook he will 'not become a Musselman'. One wonders why, if we are meant to find these views distasteful, the book insists on giving them such a thorough airing.

In any case, Jerusalem Commands is too long, too boring and in the end too trite. Moorcock sometimes seems unsure whether we should despise Pyat for his abhorrent ideas or admire his idealism, persistence and roguish qualities. But we can be sure that Pyat's adventures and fantasies not only fail to illuminate the darker recesses of human psyche and society, they also fail to inform and entertain. The latest instalment in the Pyat chronicles has actually diminished the world.

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