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Tefuga by Peter Dickinson (Pantheon: $14.95; 265 pp.)

May 04, 1986|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Like the hall of mirrors where every reflection is a slightly refracted version of the original reality, or the Chinese puzzle opening on another puzzle with a smaller puzzle inside, or, more commonly, the contrivance of a play within a play, "Tefuga"--even like Cyrano's nose--can be described as several sorts of novels happening at once.

There is the modern feminist fable in a story starting as long ago as 1923, when a group of women assert tribal strength--and a vengeful sense of justice--to overthrow a corrupt male regime enjoying female slavery and oppressive taxation. Betty Jackland, the white wife of the white British district officer for Kiti in northern Nigeria, became a semi-unwitting catalyst for African reform. First quite proper and absolutely powerless, Betty Jackland simply painted pictures until she rebelled against her role: "They've made the whole world the shape they want it and we've got to fit into the corners they've left."

There is the history of the "Raj" tradition transferred to another continent. Ted Jackland, the district officer, is benign but ineffectual, realizing that the English principle of governing through local emirs was a cosmetic form of colonialism, designed to protect the masters from responsibility for the miseries of everyday Kiti life.

There is the diary form, fitted for narrative novel use. Most of the events leading up to the terrible human sacrifice at Tefuga hill are told in Betty Jackland's diary--no mean trick for a contemporary male writer who must assume her sensitivities, her writing style and her role as a supernumerary on alien territory. The emergence of Betty Jackland as her own person, exchanging domestic humility for a larger humanity, is handled with deft understatement.

There is the modern framework for the diary flashbacks. Nigel Jackland, a successful film maker, has come back to Nigeria to recreate his mother's story. He has a gifted, gritty British actress with him and he has dealings with his parents' former houseboy, Elongo, now become the leader of the Kitawa people in a newly independent nation. They have their own fiction to act out.

Oh, and there is mystery. The truth about the deadly business on the hill--what happened and how it happened--was never completely clear to Betty Jackland. And the very existence of her diary, supposed to have been buried by Elongo in a termite's nest, is yet another question.

Author Peter Dickinson has made a career of mysteries rooted in prior times and places. "Hindsight" was a case of murder or a matter of accident at a preparatory school, pieced together by a novelist trying to help a biographer. "The Last Houseparty" was a study of decadence and who-did-it at a fancy English estate on the eve of World War II, puzzled out years later by a survivor.

But "Tefuga" lets Dickinson loose, outside England, beyond mystery and into a several-ring circus of forms and structures. He even includes a magic show, given the Kitawas' sense of the supernatural. The marvel is how well he juggles all the elements and retains credible characters, writes believable dialogue, plays Third World politics. "Certainly the White Man fell to pieces," Elongo remembers. "How can you rule when you doubt both your own right to do so and the means by which to do it? In the '50s, you could hardly find one British administrator who would not tell you openly that in his opinion, the whole system of Indirect Rule had been mistaken from the start." Here are the popular elements of commercial fiction--violence, history, romance, exotic settings--dressed carefully in the diction of literature, ornamented with an understanding of how empire ended. Fairly irresistible. Heady, too.

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