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Short of Glory by Alan Judd (Viking: $15.95; 319 pp.)

June 02, 1985|Richard Eder

Sir Wilfrid Eagle, Britain's ambassador to South Africa, is untidy and absent-minded and exercises a patrician detachment from his own bureaucratic machinery. Machinery, of course, has no detachment, or it wouldn't work.

So, when Sir Wilfrid tells his staff that what the Afrikaners need is a sense of irony and ridicule to temper their last-ditch fervor, his invocation of the Incomparable Evelyn is misperceived. "Another Waugh," he urges. "With whom?," his chief political officer wants to know.

Even if you are intransigent against puns, this is a good one; possibly because it is apt as well as funny. Alan Judd's novel impales all manner of Englishmen's attitudes and illusions as they deal with the larger and larger portion of the world that they can do less and less about. And it is a question as to who is being got at more sharply: Sir Wilfrid, with his facile literary airs, or the bureaucrat, with very little literature and no air at all.

Still, the reference to the author of "Black Mischief" and "Scoop" is a risky one. "Short of Glory" recalls a master while falling considerably short of his mastery.

As Waugh did, Judd devises an unfledged young Englishman and sets him down among the comic remains of his country's colonial habits and institutions. Not knowing what to do with his education, Patrick Stubbs joins the Foreign Service and finds himself assigned to Lower Africa. The fictional disguise for the Republic of South Africa is thin to the point of affectation. Swaziland is Swahiland; Soweto is Kuweto.

Patrick is shuttled through a menagerie of eccentricities and tiny purposes. Sir Wilfrid's office is strewn with absently discarded bits of clothing, and he tends to turn up at the wrong time and place owing to his use of the same desk calendar year after year.

Clifford, Patrick's boss, smolders perpetually over the bureaucratic error that has assigned Patrick a larger house than his. Clifford's wife is bored and incompetently sexy. There is Quirk, a diplomat who has mysteriously disappeared. There is Renwick, a sunnily incompetent secret agent who is supposed to find Quirk but loses himself in various jams from which Patrick has to extricate him.

All this makes pleasant though familiar satire. Judd attempts to give it focus by contrasting the teacup tempests inside the embassy with the real weather outside. His British diplomats are like gnats at an outdoor concert; caught up in their own buzzing and oblivious to the music.

When the diplomats take a liberal British politician to visit a black township, a bit of confused jostling is aggravated by the visitors' panic and then put down by a bloody police charge. Patrick's devoted black housekeeper is killed when a box of dynamite stored in his house by her politically activist son blows up. There is a triangular relationship involving Patrick, a beautiful widow and a moody Afrikaner police officer whom Patrick comes to like and respect more than he does his own colleagues.

Judd's purpose is to contrast the airy illusions of the outside world with the tragic realities on the ground. But he is rather sketchy with the tragic realities. The conflicts and their ambiguities have a sense of convenient arrangement. The grimness is almost as tidy as the comedy.

Waugh's achievement was to distribute his absurdities even-handedly between the English administrators and their African subjects. He needed a certain heartlessness to do so, no doubt, but there was an artistic consideration at work. In his African novels, absurdity is a seamless distorting mirror that brings out a dizzying sense of awfulness underneath. To do its work, the mirror had to distort everything.

Judd has too much compunction to do this, perhaps. His Englishmen are amusing, though lacking in the ultimate polish and style that makes a cartoon first-rate. His Africans, black and white, are realistic though not quite real. It is an unsatisfactory conjunction, like those Disney films where drawn characters shake hands with photographed ones.


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