BOOK REVIEW / Tripping out with a con artist: 'Make Believe: A True Story' - Diana Athill: Sinclair-Stevenson, 13.99 pounds

Jill Neville
Saturday 23 January 1993 00:02

MORE THAN 20 years ago Diana Athill published her extraordinary essay in autobiography, Instead of a Letter, which, once read, remains in the imagination. In her still small voice she led the reader into emotional intimacies that, in the hands of others, so often sound exactly like the 'bleeding hearts' pages in women's magazines. Athill had suffered a very cowardly form of rejection and was emotionally numbed for many years, but went on to become a distinguished figure in publishing.

I pounced upon her latest 'confessional' book but found it less than sympathetic; even embarrassing at times. It is not because she writes of her 52-year-old self doting upon a disturbed young American black man called Hakim Jamal, it is the way she bends over backwards to pander to him that irritates.

She gives him refuge, friendship and also her bed from time to time, and even somewhat stoically offers hospitality to his girlfriend Hale. (The daughter of a Conservative MP, Hale was later murdered, with Jamal's connivance, in Trinidad.)

Athill relates this curious affair with the same openness as of old, but this time the emotional intimacies she reveals contain too much wishful thinking; too much doting. Even when he is convinced that he is God she still soothes his brow, calls him 'love' and hopes the fever will pass. She is inspired of course by pity; pity for his dreadful past; pity for the bad luck of his birth and his rotten upbringing.

But when she wrote about herself in Instead of a Letter she allowed herself no shred of pity and the writing was clear-sighted and tough-minded. It is embarrassing to read how Athill becomes hypnotised by this obvious con artist; how she trips out with him; how she humours him at all times.

Even when he goes back and forth to Paris to become embroiled with Jean Seberg (then disintegrating and involved with Black Panthers); even when he goes to Guyana to start a 'theocracy' she still finds herself hoping for the schemes, however dotty, to succeed.

Eventually he is kicked out and goes to Trinidad where, having once been inspired by Malcolm X, he now becomes corrupted by Michael X and enters his world of brutality, extortion and voodoo. The ending is all horror.

The happiest days of Jamal's blighted life were his London period when his book was being published by Andre Deutsch (under Athill's editorship). He was enfolded in English liberal niceness and blossomed, revealing his considerable charm and intelligence. Athill is at her best when writing of the complex motives of the white liberals who helped him during this time.

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