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Numbers Game

Margaret Drabble’s The Gates of Ivory is the third novel in a trilogy. The first was The Radiant Way, published in 1987. It began with a New Year’s Eve party given on December 31, 1979, by a successful London psychiatrist called Liz Headleand. The new novel ends with another of Liz’s parties. Same caterer, same guests, give or take a few. Only this time the party is a luncheon following a memorial service: an end, not a beginning.

The Radiant Way was a state-of-the-nation novel about the early Thatcher years in Britain, a cry of anguish and rage at the decline of a fairly decent society into heartlessness and squalor. Drabble took a serial murder known in the tabloids as “the Notting Hill rapist,” renamed him “the Horror of the Harrow Road,” and used him as a symbol and symptom of what was wrong with Britain. The Gates of Ivory is about what is wrong with the world:

This is a novel—if novel it be—about Good Time and Bad Time. Imagine yourself standing by a bridge over a river on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Behind you…all the Good Times of the West. Before you the Bad Time of Cambodia.

A character in the novel attributes the concept “Good Time and Bad Time” to George Steiner; another “thought it came from William Shawcross. (Both were right.)” The authorial intervention is a regular Drabble device, a postmodernist link with the tradition of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. We know George Steiner, of course. As for William Shawcross, he is a journalist specializing in Southeast Asia, a “young man with curly hair…the son of the British Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg.” His book, The Quality of Mercy, appears in a bibliography at the end of Drabble’s book, and he himself lines up with more, or less, completely fictional characters by the border bridge. The Gates of Ivory is a historical, factoid novel: the bibliography proclaims that. The subjunctive in the qualifying “if novel it be” proclaims that literary standards are to be maintained.

The main story is simple. In her bijou house in St. John’s Wood, Liz Headleand receives a package from Cambodia which contains two small finger bones and scraps of writing—diaries and notes for a novel by Stephen Cox, a writer whom she had thought of marrying two years earlier. At that time he was about to set off to gather material for a book about the Khmer Rouge. He has never been heard from since, and the packet is accompanied by an anonymous note which sounds like a cry for help. Liz consults, among others, Alix Bowen and Esther Breuer, friends from her student days at Cambridge with whom she shared The Radiant Way on equal terms, but who have been relegated to bit parts in the new novel. She decides to go to Cambodia to look for Stephen, gets as far as Saigon, discovers that he has died of fever in a Cambodian hospital, contracts a different kind of fever herself, returns to England, arranges Stephen’s memorial service, and thinks about remarrying her second husband.

The account of her quest alternates with happenings in London and the tale of Stephen’s adventures. Stephen and Liz are linked by their mutual English friends, especially by Stephen’s agent, Hattie Osborne. Hattie is a rackety forty-year-old who becomes pregnant by a younger man, an avant-garde theater director who happens to be Liz’s stepson. (There is an element of soap opera here: the very best soap.) Another link is the ravishing Miss Porntip from Thailand, who sits next to Stephen on his first-class flight to Bangkok. Miss Porntip’s jewels match her outfits. She is a rich operator and entrepreneur, but benign. Her education consisted of four years in elementary school followed by massage parlors, but she understands world economics: “Britain is poor country…. Post-industrial country. You import from Japan, from Korea, from Thailand. You no more manufacturing. You cooling, we heating. You protectionist now. You senile now,” she tells Stephen. And on another occasion:

Socialism finished, simplicity finished, poverty finished, USSR and China and Vietnam all finished. Liberty, is all. Growth, is all. Dollars, is all…. Is good. Is better. Equality and fraternity is poverty and sickness. Is men working like beast, like buffalo. Is men killing one another like beast, like worse beast. Is no good, Stephen. Is finished. Is new world now. Is failed and finished.

Thank God for Miss Porntip’s English. Stephen becomes her lover until he insists on moving on from Bangkok to Vietnam and Cambodia. When Liz in her turn gets to Bangkok, Miss Porntip takes her under her wing and on a compulsory shopping trip for precious stones before sorting out her visa problems for her. Miss Porntip is “Beauty Queen of Asia,” but her title might just as well be Miss Good Time. Good Time—the consumer society—is what she symbolizes.

Mrs. Akrun, on the other hand, is a monument to Bad Time. Stephen and Liz in turn visit her in a camp for Cambodian refugees on the Thai border. Most of her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and she has become a familiar tragic icon; her photograph with the caption: Where is my son? appears throughout the world on posters appealing for aid. It was taken by Konstantin Vassiliou, a charming blond photographer from North London. Konstantin is the son of a Greek businessman and an upperclass English woman. In Saigon he persuaded Stephen to collaborate on a book about Cambodia; Stephen is to write the text and Konstantin will take the photographs. Together with a Japanese journalist called Akira, who is equipped with every sort of electronic device, they set out from Phnom Penh into Khmer Rouge territory. In no time at all they are captured and Akira is led away to be shot, Stephen falls sick, and the Khmer Rouge soldiers dump him and Konstantin in an isolated jungle village. When Stephen looks close to death, Konstantin decides to get away. A village woman nurses Stephen until he is taken away to die in an unspeakable hospital in the jungle. Konstantin makes it to London just in time for the second half of Stephen’s memorial service. He is late because there has been a pileup on the M4 motorway from Heathrow. This kind of implication-loaded, doomy circumstantiality is one of Drabble’s trademarks.

She has always been a perspicacious observer of the social scene, brilliant at spotting fashionable and unfashionable accessories, from ideals to handbags. In this particular novel there is even a fashionable disease: thoroughly modern Liz is laid low in Vietnam not with dengue fever, but with toxic shock caused by an ancient tampon she finds in the back pocket of her hand bag and uses in an emergency. Drabble employs her knack for detecting material and intellectual fashion statements to define the societies she writes about; and also to animate her characters. It’s a technique with a built-in ironic slant, and the nearest she ever gets to comedy.

In the East, the knack doesn’t work so well. Drabble is out of her manor, lost among the crowd of old Southeast Asia hands, and her descriptions of overstated hotels in Bangkok, of dying jungle villages and ramshackle camps full of amputees are not even news. That is not her most serious problem, though. A bigger one involves the form as well as the content of her novel: how to combine writing about the destiny of multitudes with writing about individual destinies. She could, she tells us, have interwoven Mrs. Akrun’s search for her son with Liz’s search for Stephen

with a conventional plot sequence, [and it] would have made a much more satisfactory narrative than this…. Such a narrative would have required a certain amount of trickiness, a certain deployment of not-quite-acceptable coincidences, a certain ruthless tidying up of the random movements of people and peoples. But it should not be beyond the competence of a certain kind of reasonably experienced novelist. One may force, one may impose one’s will.

But such narrative will not do. The mismatch between narrative and subject is too great. Why impose the story line of individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers? A queasiness, a moral scruple overcomes the writer at the prospect of selecting individuals from the mass of history, from the human soup. Why this one, why not another?

Perhaps, for this subject matter, one should seek the most disjunctive, the most disruptive, the most uneasy and incompetent of forms, a form that offers not a grain of comfort or repose.

The form of The Gates of Ivory is certainly uneasy. There are three main elements: one, the up-market London soap opera of Liz and her mostly media friends (actually rather a comforting easy read); two, the Southeast Asian travelogues of Stephen and Liz; and three. Well, three can be a meditation in the mind of one character or another, or straight from Drabble’s own mind. It tends to have a vatic, liturgical ring to it, and to be in the historical present or the future tense, often punctuated by unanswerable questions:

Is it Rose’s fault that Konstantin is a sweet bird of death, a mourning dove, a destroyer, driven by childhood responsibilities to haunt battlefields and widows and orphans and starving children?

Is it Rose’s fault that Stephen, whom she has never met, lies dead in an unmarked grave? Is it Rose’s fault that Konstantin has been through the slough of despond and dwelt in the valley of the shadow? This is the language she gave him, these the images, and this the pain.

This sort of thing doesn’t get one anywhere, especially in this case, where Drabble has already explained that Konstantin and Rose (his mother) miss the party after Stephen’s memorial service because “they belong to a different world and a different density. They have wandered into this story from the old-fashioned, Freudian, psychological novel, and they cannot mix and mingle with the guests of Liz Headleand. They should never have been invited.”

The remark about the old-fashioned Freudian novel sounds as though Drabble meant The Gates of Ivory to be a new kind. In fact its structure is at least as old as War and Peace: births, love affairs, marriages, and career moves within a group of linked characters are intercut with the march of history. The pattern has built-in irony and pathos. The difference is that Tolstoy’s characters are affected by history; Prince Andrew’s death alone changes the destiny of almost all the others. Stephen’s death doesn’t affect anyone much, not even Liz; and it is not thrust upon him by history but is the result of a caprice of his own. The rest of the English characters are safe from history, mere foils to it; and therefore—or so it seems—their creator can’t help presenting them with a certain disdain. They can’t rise above soap opera level. A bit of the old-fashioned Freudian stuff might have given them life instead of just liveliness. Still, lively and entertaining they certainly are. Drabble cannot help being a lively and entertaining writer—Tolstoy put in reflective passages about history which many readers skip. It might be a good idea to skip Drabble’s incantations.

The Gates of Ivory ends with a prophecy. The last paragraph is about Mrs. Akrun’s missing son Mitra. He has joined the Khmer Rouge.

He will march on, armed, blooded, bloodied, a rusty Chinese rifle at his back. Many have died and many more will die in their attempt to maim and capture him. He grows and grows, he multiplies. Terribly, he smiles. He is legion. He has not been told that he is living at the end of history. He does not care whether his mother lives or dies. He marches on. He is multitudes.

The new kind of novel, then, must be about multitudes. Going through Stephen’s notes, Liz discovered that this was what he was thinking about: “the Crowd, Genocide, and the Numbers Game.” How many Libyans were killed by Rameses II, how many Persians and Indians by Tamburlaine, how many Romans by the Iceni, how many Congolese by the Belgians, how many Armenians, Jews, Bangladeshis, Soviet Russians, Vietnamese, Cambodians in the twentieth century? To write a novel on this subject is a huge undertaking and not a very promising one; and it doesn’t really suit Drabble. Her talent is for storytelling in general and for pinpointing British nuances in particular. Fortunately, she does quite a lot of both in The Gates of Ivory, and uses quite a lot of the “reasonably experienced” novelist’s techniques: “a certain amount of trickiness, a certain deployment of not-quite-acceptable coincidences,” and so on; quite enough to enter her book for the prize just founded by the bookselling chain W.H. Smith for “a thumping good read.”

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