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BOOK REVIEW / You can hardly call it romance: 'Swimming in the Volcano' - Bob Shacochis: Picador, 15.99

Nicholas Lezard
Sunday 12 December 1993 00:02 GMT

THERE'S a tendency for writers to simplify when dealing with third world politics, to assume, like Evelyn Waugh, that everything can be sorted out by a goat freeing itself from its tether or a drunken Dane smashing up the presidential palace. Looking at Swimming in the Volcano's hefty 519 pages the thought that Shacochis has simplified anything might not be the first to cross your mind, and you would be right.

Set on the Caribbean island of St Catherine's, the novel's first chapter (after a prologue, written in the prose equivalent of Cinemascope, in which the hero and a ranger examine the not-so-dormant crater of the island's volcano) is superbly executed comedy, as Mitchell Wilson, an American working in the agricultural ministry, and Isaac Knowles, a native friend, slither down a mountain road in a car whose brakes have failed. Shacochis holds up the car's progress with blocks of reminiscence, filling-in

and tangential explanations, all the funnier for being told in

that situation.

They're on their way to pick up Mitchell's ex-girlfriend, Johnnie, from the airport. Mitchell and Isaac eventually make it to the airport (after having rear-ended the UN ambassador's wife on the way down), arriving in time to see the air traffic control building go up in smoke; apparently the radio operator had been stuffing his roti wrappers behind his set until a spark set the whole thing ablaze. This is standard stuff, a portrait of paradise as an incompetent's haven, familiar to anyone who has either read the literature on the subject or slummed it in a country with no infrastructure to speak of. Even when Isaac gets thrown into jail and beaten up after

having been escorted to the police station by the ambassador and his indignant wife, we can imagine that this is all par for

the course.

It is not. Shacochis is not happy with reducing events to their comic components, and the rest of the novel is an exercise in wiping the smiles off our faces. As we should have guessed early on, when he is writing about people who travel from first to third world:

They came to it not as they would have in the past, as men encountering an enslaved virgin who would acquiesce to rough treatment, but as courtiers trying to win the attention of a harridan widow, a mauled-over bitch who had inherited the broken kingdoms of her ancestors. Either way, you could hardly call it romance.

This is perceptive, but begs the question of whether Shacochis includes himself here, or whether he is trying to have his cake and eat it: keen on dismantling our simplistic notions as to what makes this tropical microcosm tick, he is also soppy about St Catherine's in a way that you could call romantic. The course of the book - reflected in the fact that there are about a hundred good jokes in the first part, and virtually none in the remaining two parts - is a process of falling out of love with the place. The novel ends in brutal tragedy. The tag 'where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile', which has haunted every such book since Genesis, applies here too, and is a helpful one to remember when you get bogged down in the painstaking descriptions of the island's convoluted politics, a morass of acronyms and rotten politicians serenading both the US and Cuba for aid (the book is set in 1977).

This novel is meant to be the last word on the subject, although the very number of words it contains might make you wonder if this is the case. The problem is that Shacochis is unsure whether he is Graham Greene or James Joyce. For every passage so good that you want to read it aloud to someone (two, on the effects of cocaine and rum punch, stand out) there are a few that you might not have wished to read at all. 'If that then was maturity,' Shacochis ventriloquises for one expat, 'adulthood wandering in from the wide open space of adolescence, must she concede the converse implication, that her original point of departure, the impulse she had answered to set herself free, was an arbitrary act of immaturity?'

Well, was it? We wonder, but we also wonder if she would have put it that way herself. Shacochis thinks for people in language they wouldn't understand, let alone use. It is a generous impulse - it makes people seem cleverer than they are - but, perhaps, a condescending one (none of you is as clever as me). Skip, if you can, the descriptions of people's interior workings, and relish the pin-sharp evocations of surfaces, the extraordinary effort and love that has gone into this novel, and you'll have a better time with it than I did.

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