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The Bitter Cross.

Simon Mawer. Sinclair-Stevenson. 313pp. 14.95[pounds].

Waiting for War by the French writer Claude Delarue is a novel of stature. It stretches the imagination, overturns scientific and philosophical prejudice and brings simple images into the forefront of complex situations. (Translated now into German, Greek, Spanish and Romanian, it is the first of Delarue's novels to be published in English as a |paperback original', by Minerva.)

The compelling tale begins with the entry of a geologist who, having been rejected by his professional scientific colleagues for writing a controversial paper they think insufficiently rigorous, takes the post of secretary to Mrs. Olga Grekova-Leber, the widow of a scientist and architect who died whilst supervising the construction of his vast project, a mountain fortress as a refuge for an entire community in case of war. The accident which killed him also caused his wife to lose the use of her legs. The secretary, nameless throughout the book, is one of a procession who have tried and failed to help her collate Samuel Leber's papers and organize his immense library. After becoming Olga's lover he incurs the mistrust of her other assistants, especially two central figures in this improbable landscape.

One is Morel, Leber's trusted technical adviser who has put ten years' work into equipping the refuge and who graphically describes it as |fifteen times the size of Amiens Cathedral'. The other is Tanguy, gamekeeper extraordinary and the illegitimate son of the Countess Ott who sold the mountain to Leber. His charge extends to the deer park and all wild animals but he breeds wild bears to kill the game he should protect, out of some inexplicable blood lust. His murderous jealousy is palpable. The secretary himself is obsessed too with past tragedies, not only Olga's but his own. These are only gradually revealed. Buried lives and buried buildings seem to him to share a curious kinship and he understands in the end, as the idealist Leber had not, that close confinement with others can arouse the interpersonal hatred that causes wars, making any purpose-built refuge the best possible breeding ground for further conflict.

The novel is full of suddenly perceived paradoxes as, for instance, when the secretary digs up skeletal geological specimens dating back to before recorded time, he realises that geology is antipathetic to history since these objects were never, in their original state, beheld by human eye. Inside the immense underground structure, as Morel shows him round it, the secretary confides that he understands Olga's disability because he had, at the age of 13, looked after his polio-disabled mother whose iron lung he had actually switched off at her request. But he admits to himself that only |down here' where |we are so far from God' could he have spoken thus; |we can say anything, knowing it won't have any repercussions, yet still nothing eases the pain'. Increasingly he is revealed as a man haunted by guilt, whether real or imagined, and the mystery is never resolved.

Eventually the villagers become alarmed by the danger presented by the roaming wild animals, even confined behind the Great Wall, and officials arrive to demand their slaughter whilst sending in soldiers to ensure it. Coinciding with the threat of a European war, this confrontation ends too the possibility of privacy for the estate's continuance. Olga's isolation is destroyed. Tanguy kills himself, Felicite the cook disappears and the saintly brahmin Sarachchandra dies fasting. The secretary finally |loses' Olga whilst mysteriously refusing to succour her, as before he has |lost' his former employer, the disabled Fra Cosimo, whose fading image constantly recurs. Significantly, the next day he acquires another disabled patient to care for, this time a young man whose mother seeks him out in the village. Many of Delarue's scenes would, without his mediating artistry, be frightful. A murder mystery, a psychological thriller, lurks beneath the surface as each of his characters wages war against his enemy. It is a brilliant maze.

Simon Mawer's novel, The Bitter Cross, is a complex story of love and war during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century. Northern Europe is suffering the Protestant revolution, Italy and the Mediterranean are battling with the onslaught of Islam. Malta lies strategically between the two and the hero of the novel is placed there.

Gerald Paulet, a young English nobleman, is serving there as a Knight of Saint John. He has already suffered from the disappearance of the English monastic tradition and the sequestering of the Knights' base in Britain. Fearful and uncertain, he tries to be loyal to both country and Catholic faith but he feels stranded in the tiny, vulnerable island, protected only by his heritage which seems increasingly far away and is fast losing its sea-faring supremacy to corsairs and pirate galley fleets. The story of his life there is told by him through his recollections in old age whilst retired in the Grand Priory of Rome. His exploits as both crusader and priest, his disastrous involvement with powerful, sinister forces, are graphically described. Contenders for the position of Grand Master of the Order are cleverly shown as the politicians they have become. Particularly threatening to a young man is the mighty but insane Leone Strozzi who wins but betrays the Order thereafter and plans the downfall of Paulet and other priestly knights who take their religious vows seriously, struggling against impossibly powerful political and mercenary forces. Unusually strong is the author's depiction of the inner conflicts felt between pacifist instincts and necessary warlike intervention by the Knights of the Order.

Paulet recalls the aristocratic Sicilian woman he had deeply loved: she embodies this struggle for she has inherited the tower fortress which is the Order's historic base. He remembers too the young boy whom he rescued from Islam and brought up in his own religious creed. The horrifying, bewildering end to his own career seems to him a just punishment in a world where he cannot think in any other terms than those of ideals betrayed.

The full meaning of the bitter cross with its dual implication of love and death is only finally to be understood in the light of his forbidden passion and his betrayal of God in warring against earthly enemies, notably the encroaching Turkish hordes. His two greatest known enemies had, he thought, been Protestantism and Islam: more subtly undermining ones had supervened, the most insidious being his superiors in the Order itself. The novel is exciting and imaginative. Simon Mawer has vividly described his impressive characters and their exotic setting.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth is a long, involved novel about the slave trade of the mid-eighteenth century, centring on Liverpool merchants and the West Indies where they obtained their cargo of human beings. There are two sections, set twelve years apart. In the first, William Kemp of Liverpool puts all his resources into constructing a slave ship for an expedition to the West Indies. His nephew, Matthew Paris, is appointed leader and ship's surgeon, and from his libertarian ideal of racial equality stems the dramatic turn taken in the second part. The bitter animosity between Erasmus, Kemp's son, and Paris is only partly due to this appointment for Erasmus's mind is only on commercial success and he is antipathetic to the social purpose of his cousin. Kemp senior, facing ruin through the apparent loss of the Liverpool Merchant, his ship, kills himself. It is, in fact, becalmed near Jamaica, its slave cargo dying of dysentery; and the crew, in a state of mutiny, abandon ship.

Part Two follows, twelve years later, the successful trading voyage of Erasmus to Florida where he has become well known for his West African connexions. Paradoxically, Erasmus is in search too of a fabled Utopia where black and white may live on an equal footing, but Matthew Paris arrives, intending to cause trouble for his hated cousin. However, he and his radical friend Delblanc stay and attempt to run the colony on free-thinking principles which do not succeed. Part Two is less moving than the rest because it is more of a social tract for the times. But the novel is impressively successful as a historical re-creation. Barry Unsworth has achieved the almost impossible task of creating characters as memorable as Conrad's in Typhoon and Heart of Darkness. His book is well worth reading.

An Honourable Death by lan Crichton Smith, quite a short novel, is the work of a keen, precise mind with poetic insight, brought to bear on the story of the court-martialling of a major-general in Queen Victoria's 92nd Gordon Highlanders, in 1903. After serving in all colonial theatres of war and winning acclaim as the hero of Omdurman, Sir Hector Macdonald was accused of homosexuality, was unable to face the court and took his own life. It is a moving, well written book.
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Article Details
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Author:Abel, Betty
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:1472
Previous Article:Waiting for War.
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