David Pownall Peter Ackroyd - Essay

Peter Ackroyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.