David Caute Lorna Sage - Essay

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

['The K-Factor,' a novel] set in Southern Rhodesia in 1979, in the last days of white rule, explores the strange forms life takes in a 'vacuum' where 'anything is possible': where the racial divide that on one level simplifies everything, on another level generates self-division and bad faith. Civil war, even between colonists and freedom-fighters, is still, the novel insists, war within the self too, a symptom of 'our' failure to understand 'ourselves' as collectively human.

Mr Caute refuses to produce a documentary. His descriptions of both black and white characters, and the words in which they fail to communicate ('terrs,' 'munts,' 'floppies,' 'Afs,' 'sell-outs') are vivid and meticulous. However, his real interest is in entangling his reader in the psychology of 'transition.' As the violence and paranoia build up, his people decay into peculiar entities….

All of which makes for strenuous and compulsive reading, in the manner of J. G. Farrell novels about the end of Empire. The historical process reveals more of a residue of unreason, the closer you get to it. However, 'The K-Factor' (the title starts off as white code for the inferiority of 'Kaffirs' and ends by symbolising the element of fantasy in real events) doesn't in the end have Farrell's persuasiveness. Mr Caute crams too many competing mental landscapes into too small a space, so that the 'chaos' stays, too often, out of focus.

Lorna Sage, "Cryck in the Neck," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), May 22, 1983, p. 30.∗