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Richard Eder

Foreign Land by Jonathan Raban (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $16.95; 352 pp.)

October 13, 1985|RICHARD EDER

To George Grey, returning after a life mostly spent abroad, Britain is the foreign land. So his daughter remarks, somewhat too preemptively, in the first pages of this thoughtful but unsteady novel.

George has made a comfortable life for himself where the English have traditionally been most comfortable. Away from their own society, that is, where nobody can quite figure them out. The "away," in this case, was a small West African republic where George ran a ship-bunkering business, played squash with Teddy, the minister of Communications, and slept with Vera, the minister of Health.

Home could hardly be like that, and when George retires and moves to the cottage in Cornwall that used to belong to his parents, he finds that it isn't. Sheila, his daughter, a brisk writer and intellectual who lives with her handyman lover, is part of the foreignness. So are George's neighbors; retired, aimless, living in their seaside bungalows and waiting to die.

George moves in but he hasn't arrived. Home is closed and probably always has been. The cottage is filled with the memories of his insular, penny-pinching father. His fellow pensioners are indistinct and self-absorbed; where can he fit in?

A one-time sailor, George buys a boat moored in the local harbor. An island is best approached by water, and perhaps by living aboard and nosing around the coast he will find a way back. It doesn't work. He makes friends with another retired traveler; a former singer who lives near the village. Diana Pym is independent, gruff-voiced and fine-spirited; and George ignites a diffident and beautifully described spark in her, but the distance never quite closes, even after they go sailing together.

The townspeople are squalid and mean-spirited. One of them knows that George's boat has dry rot in the stem, but says nothing about it. Another, who runs a videotape store, proposes to hire the boat to shoot pornographic films on board, using the services of local teenagers.

Finally, George sets out on a voyage along the coast, intending to reach London and dock there. He concedes that such a miniature Odyssey--sailing single-handed through Channel storms--will allow him to make the landfall that has been evading him. He imagines nosing up rivers along the way, anchoring by water-meadows, hearing village church bells; capturing, in other words, the England that must exist.

Instead, his odd venture captures the England that does exist. A customs inspector accuses him of intending to smuggle drugs or refugees, and warns him that his boat will be rigorously searched every time it makes port. And so he sails for Africa, with his rotting English stem and all.

Raban, of course, is writing a sardonic parable about his country's decline, and about the illusions and mutual social isolation that keep it from finding new energies. In another way, though, the estranged country that George coasts off of represents the reduced and sunset choices of old age. If George does not make land, it is partly because he cannot bring himself to. Diana, who flickers with hope and accepts hope's end, tells him that in spirit he is still back in Africa. A youthful maritime illusion must give way to something humbler.

"You'll just have to learn now to look forward to things like taking your grandchild sailing on your boat," she tells him.

The parable is apt and touching. It is in handling the novel that Raban waivers. His characters don't quite fit themselves. Sheila, commanding daughter, starts strong and fades out. Vera and Teddy, the African ministerial playmates, are vestigial figures. And there is little connection between George, as his daughter remembers him--suave, mysterious and forceful--and the man we see.

The sailing is first rate. Raban--author of "Old Glory," an absorbing account of his trip by motorboat down the Mississippi--has a vivid feel for the sea. But he has chosen to tell of George's past by means of flashbacks peopled by figures he has known: his father, his dissolute wife, Vera, old navy friends and others. They crowd aboard the boat, three or four at a time. The boat keeps a decent balance, but the novel lists.

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