Sunday, July 06, 2008

book review - Venusberg

For some reason this just doesn’t work very well. Anthony Powell has tried to take the world of social intrigue and politics and set it in a mystery country in the Balkans but the effect doesn’t quite come off.

There are several reasons why this doesn’t quite get it right including the location. Setting it in a country that you hazard a guess at but is never actually revealed is an odd move that makes this hard to connect with.

Then add to that the odd feelings that the main character inspires and it is hard to care about the world that he inhabits and the love lives he plans to lead. Things start with a literary correspondent for a newspaper, Lushington, being sent off to cover foreign parts. Much as the world described in Scoop all this really involves is hanging round government and diplomatic circles waiting for a revolution or something else to happen.

The select circles that Lushington moves in take him into contact with an old acquaintance Da Costa, who his girlfriend in England had turned him over for, as well as a series of generals and diplomats from the country and US diplomats.

Central to experience in the East is the boat trip on the way there where he meets the woman with whom he starts an affair on board and carries on in the city. The irony is of course that she is married and much in the same way that Lushington himself was the spurned element of a threesome so the husband finds himself wondering just why his wife is acting so strangely.

The problem is the detachment that the central character displays to almost every situation. Having made friends with a Russian émigré on the boat he then fails to show anything other than the interest of an observer when he visits the Russians incredibly crowded flat.

Likewise even after his mistress and lover’s rival XXX have been killed in a botched attempt to kill the chief of police he still seems to drift back to London and into the arms of his old girlfriend.

That detachment might work when the world around the central character is interesting and organic in terms of developing in different directions and as a result provoking the main character. But none of that happens and when an event does occur, like the murder of his mistress, it seems to have very little impact.

Presumably there is meant to be humour in the book but it is not as easy to spot as What’s become of Waring? one of his other pre Dance to the Music of Time novels. The target of amusement in a stereotypical sense seems lost here as well as the focus seems to be partially on the buffer states coping with the communists in charge over the border.

This is a book that has sadly dated. The world described is incomplete and of partial interest, the problems of revolutions and shots at police chiefs soon were far from comic once the true extent of the Stalinist horrors emerged and the characterisation just doesn’t have enough to engage.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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