The Times Literary Supplement
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
There are embarrassing similarities between David Caute's ambitious novel [The Decline of the West] and the contemptible tales of Harold Robbins. It is enormously long, dealing in a pseudo-realistic manner with more continents and societies than any man could hope to know intimately; several of the characters are papier-maché versions of real public figures, newspaper clippings pasted together round a damp mould; the stress on torture and maltreatment, though doubtless well-meaning, can provide a shameful erotic stimulus; wish-fulfilment is too overtly in evidence; there is nowhere to go for a laugh. These are bad signs. The best that can be said for it is that it's politically sound—and this verdict, by its nature, can hardly be unanimous.
We start in Coppernica, a French-speaking nation in the African copper-belt. A nationalist revolution (on the Algerian model) has resulted in a government very like the first Congolese administration. The premier is a generous-hearted petty clerk whose liberal, white-Christian sentiments have been embittered by squalid European racism: his charisma is the result of his oratorical flair and the fact that the common people can identify with his firm and simple moral philosophy. There is nothing wrong with an English scholar-novelist attempting a fictional representation of Patrice Lumumba: his distinction and the unspeakable circumstances of his betrayal and death, for the benefit of the international "anti-Communist" cause, make it almost inevitable that Lumumba should become a kind of myth, perhaps eventually the tragic hero of a great work.
This novel is not that, by any means; but it satisfies when it sticks to the Lumumba figure and his fellow politicians…. David Caute could hardly present a very profound interpretation of this kind of African politician: it is unlikely that he has sufficient experience of their attitudes and way of life. But then, neither has any other western novelist. His imaginative effort at least makes a worthwhile pattern of conjecture.
When he turns to the western expatriates, the reader is on firmer ground and the author is more vulnerable….
Surprisingly, in this overtly Negrophie novel, there is an underlying fear of Africa, a touch of The Emperor Jones and Heart of Darkness: it comes across in the scene of Jason Bailey's death, against a thick wall of jungle, stiff with unseen watching "natives" and impaled heads. Admittedly, though, the prime horror is the west, with its apparatus of flame-throwers and torture-equipment—electrodes for the male genitals, bottles for the female. References to Hola camp, Algerian stockades and French police-stations are properly introduced. But to drag in the brothel as well seems overdoing it: there's no evidence that sado-masochistic "consenting adults" are necessarily right-wing colonialists. This is too easy an identification.
The loose, baggy monster is lumbered with as many flashbacks as torture scenes. The old Scot's reminiscence of class-hate in Edinburgh, with its relevance to his disgrace in Kenya, could have made a novel in itself, with more concentration. The story of the Bailey brothers in America, the challenge of racial integration and miscegenation, this seems a theme better left to abler American writers. Doubtless the author hoped to link together the most dramatic examples of neo-colonialist viciousness and its metropolitan roots, the social conflicts of class, race and sex. But he has merely lumped them together in confusion.
"Public Faces, Private Places," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3367, September 8, 1966, p. 798.