David Pownall Essay - Critical Essays

Pownall, David


Pownall, David 1938–

Pownall is a British novelist and short story writer now residing in South Africa.

Peter Ackroyd

The Raining Tree War is a very funny first novel. It concerns a group of Ogden Nash savages who flash their pearly teeth, limbo, and worship Maud, Wife Of Our God, Woman Of Your Friend and Your Old Mother Herself….

[Pownall] is not satirising the black races themselves, but rather the Western Idea of them. It is only in musicals, after all, that natives wear palm fronds, and sentences like "I am a sensitive person and can feel that I will die before many days have passed," have come straight from the set of a Tarzan movie. (p. 22)

The improbable events of pastoral comedy have been transported to a more garish natural spot, where gigantism invades all things and improbable events become ever noiser and more unpredictable. But, like all comedy, it has a happy ending as nurture grudgingly gives way to nature in the irrefutable shape of Maud. Africa is the spot, of course, from which people are supposed to come and Pownall throws in a Tree of Life to keep everyone smiling. There is a touch of self-consciousness about this paradisaical manoeuvre, but I can forgive most things for a little black comedy. (p. 23)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 6, 1974.

Peter Ackroyd

It never occurred to anyone that you could be funny about black Africans without being patronising or even bigoted; David Pownall changed all that with his first novel, The Raining Tree War, which turned Africa's 'Liberation' into the material of farce at the same time as it brought the native breed into a new and sympathetic light. African Horse goes back to this emerging world and makes it even more colourful, violent and awkward than before—and I have a feeling that Mr Pownall has created a comic landscape which will supersede Blandings Castle, Ambrose Silk, Lucky Jim and the rest of the old boys….

The thing which keeps all of [the many] foreign elements together is the astonishing and sustained inventiveness of Mr Pownall's prose. The sexual, political and alcoholic adventures of Hurl Halfcock provide the tenuous story-line of the book, and its sheer linear force and the constant accumulation of new jokes and new situations place it close to the spirit to such narrative epics as Tom Jones and Don Quixote. In this sense, African Horse is not a particularly subtle or witty book, but it is an extremely funny one. I know that comic novels, deep down where it never really matters, are supposed to be profound or at least 'serious' but Mr Pownall never quite gets that far. There are, however, some moments of subdued lyricism, sharp polemic and blunt description which would do credit to a different kind of novel altogether, and there are some fast changes of tone and language to enforce the variety of moods which Mr Pownall creates around his adopted country…. This comic version of Africa, this "Cradle of Man", this "Garden of Eden", is both mother and spoiler, both violent and serene. African Horse is the only novel to bring this puzzling life into the light without pomposity or the slow, grinding tedium of 'serious' novels. (p. 113)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 26, 1975.

H. B. Mallalieu

[In] African Horse it is the style, Swiftian in its sharpness though contemporary in its influences, which keeps the reader interested: plus a very imaginative and vivid satirical view of an environment—the copper belt of southern Africa—with which he is so familiar. If an author should know three times more about his subject than is required for a particular work, Pownall is an example to others who have written more…. Despite a scenario acted out in the manner of the Marx brothers at their best, the author makes us believe that life is like this, larger and more eccentric than we think…. What [his characters] say and do may seem mad, or madly comic, but their accents ring bells. Haven't we ourselves come across such oddities, if oddities they are? There is a hero, Hurl Halfcock, whose search for his identity gives a narrative continuity, yet it is not so much him we remember as the atmosphere in an emergent black nation as self-seeking, as ridiculous, as incompetent as its former rulers. In spite of the craziness, the goonery, the cruelty even, a compassion comes through. If men are all villains, fools, or failures, for whom else can we have compassion? To make a precis of the book, if it were possible, would destroy the surprises and the fun. David Pownall has established himself as a writer in running for promotion to a major league. (pp. 73-4)

H. B. Mallalieu, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 2, (1976).

Nick Totten

In My Organic Uncle, David Pownall successfully carries off a remarkable eclecticism of place, class, theme and tone. The stories move from Zambia to Liverpool to the Mediterranean, from farce to realist fragment to macabre tragedy. The juxtapositions genuinely manage to convey, in a way that is neither cliché nor concealed cultural imperialism, the collective, unitive nature of human experience. There is no self-conscious theme; but there is a sense in which each story's emotion is a tributary to a single confluence, a pressure which emerges clearly in the last story, 'The Walls of Shimpundu'. The black miner, Golden, at the deathbed of the white foreman nicknamed Shimpundu, demands to understand his racism, the 'walled city' of whiteness inside his head. He gets no answer, but death: 'Shimpundu's eyes held nothing but a wide clear plain as broad as Africa itself, and the walls of Shimpundu lay submerged beneath the flood of red, forgiving waters'.

David Pownall demonstrates an unassuming competence which goes beyond itself. Only a few of these stories—'The Walls of Shimpundu', 'The Going-away Clothes', 'Buffs'—are individually very impressive; some of the others are pretty damp squibs. But there is a cumulative power: the power of a warm intelligence that brings together scraps of disparate experience into a surprisingly coherent fabric. (p. 22)

Nick Totten, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permisssion of The Spectator), October 2, 1976.

Peter Prince

God Perkins is formidable. At times it seems to contain as many characters as the telephone directory, but the plot, alas, has nothing in common with A-D's austere restraint. I got lost well before the end….

The theatre world is naturally so full of humour that it seems almost perverse of David Pownall to have written in such a frantically farcical style. So many people are being so busy all the time no single figure ever stands still long enough to establish himself. The only one to get close to doing so is the harried, sensuous, suicidal writer McHugh. It would have been nice to have known more about McHugh, and I cannot think why Mr Pownall let the other members of the cast get away with so much obstreperous upstaging. Still, Mr Pownall's approach throws up some merry quips—"we all know writers and directors have rows about interpretation, but I think McHugh is the first writer I have heard of who has brought the police in on his side"—and fans of freewheeling farce should certainly feel they have been taken a full fifteen rounds by God Perkins.

When he tries for satire, however, Mr Pownall is often decidedly shaky. We need to be able to trust a satirist's small, everyday perceptions—otherwise it is difficult to follow him confidently into his large fantasies. I am not sure Mr Pownall earns that basic confidence.

Peter Prince, "Everyone on Stage," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 11, 1977, p. 261.