Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Horror, The Horror : Some things you just have to restrain yourself from writing : MASAI DREAMING, By Justin Cartwright (Random House: $23; 288 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Francine Prose | Francine Prose is the author of "A Peaceable Kingdom," "Primitive People" and other books

Not long ago I watched a group of writers take guilty wicked pleasure in comparing the worst sentences they'd ever encountered while teaching creative writing. I can't remember the examples, many of which were outrageous, but I do recall that finally we all gasped and then fell silent, stunned by the obvious winner. A novelist had told her undergraduate class that it was possible to write about events that one had not personally experienced. Days later, a young man handed in a manuscript that began with these unforgettable lines: "Morning call came early at Auschwitz. But David didn't mind. He was a morning person."

I thought often of the irrepressible David while reading Justin Cartwright's "Masai Dreaming," a novel marred by a similarly grand sense of subject and an equally breathtaking failure of the imagination. Indeed, the shadow of Auschwitz hovers over these pages. The narrative maps a research trip taken by a writer named Tim Curtiz in order to gather material for a screenplay about a beautiful French-Jewish anthropologist who traveled to Africa to study the Masai during World War II, then went home to France, from where she was sent to die in one of Hitler's death camps. Tracking the tragic life of the elusive Claudia Cohn-Casson, Curtiz interviews her former friends and lovers, Masai and colonials, old Africa hands still sipping brandy on the manicured lawns of the Muthaiga Club--and tries not to dwell obsessively on the wounded vanity occasioned by his girlfriend Victoria's infidelity: "I find the prospect of two octogenarians having dinner in the middle of Africa moving. The intensely familiar surroundings, the froggy air, the starched linen earnestly folded, even the little fake candleholders on the wall with their chintz shades, shunt my real life, my sexual wrangles with Victoria, my work, to one side. This uninvited, almost uncontrollable welling of memory is like finding a hard splinter in the soft, flabby flesh of my real life." Meanwhile, Curtiz is plotting his script, the frame-by-frame of a film that we soon realize will end en route to Auschwitz. ("Now we know immediately what we are meant to know, because these are Orthodox Jews, praying and nodding, and we are in the cattle car at night.")

Nor do we have to wait long to see the point being made here. A woman has gone to Africa to learn "something about the earlier stages of human life, the savage states through which the human race has passed so unevenly . . . " only to discover that the true savages are back in Europe. It's the sort of irony that makes the Hollywood pitch, including the last glorious cut from the death-camp furnace turning the sky orange to the sun flaming up, Lawrence of Arabia-style, over the African hills. ("The sun is like a heart, exposed in surgery, beating away blindly although unaccustomed to public scrutiny.")

Much of this is written so badly that it makes one gasp. Cartwright, a British film and TV-ad director whose credits include four previous novels, has a taste for the lyrical ("My black heart squeezes itself involuntarily, like a palsied hand.") and for the rambling gastronomic metaphor. ("My legs are now pleasantly brown, quite well formed, I believe. I am happy to see them in this workmanlike state. It confirms to me that I am far from the northern climates, the habitat of the Brussels sprout, where something sickly was spreading over my relationship with Victoria--just like the smell of overcooked vegetable.") His hero doesn't hesitate to set a great writer straight ("Proust . . . thought that memory could unlock the imagination . . . I fear it can throttle imagination") or to generalize about women ("I see women as closer to the tragic than men because of the frailty of their expectations, which have no solid foundation in the world. I see their hopes like Masai villages, impermanent and leaving few marks on the landscape.") Cartwright makes sweeping, inaccurate statements about Jews ("Jews, because of their skepticism about an afterlife, have felt a greater need to make a go of this world") and even ventures to vouch for the sensory experience of fuzzy creatures, as in this description of a bouquet Victoria gets from her lover: "No koala had ever seen leaves more pristine: their gray-green appeared to have been waxed and polished before leaving the insect-free greenhouse where they had been raised for the sole purpose of dignifying the writhings and duplicities of lust."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|