Mortimer of the Maghreb
Alfred A. Knopf / 480 pages / $24
English romanticism took the exile and turned him into the expatriate.
Exile is a bitter experience; the expatriate has made a bittersweet choice. Nowadays, our globalized economy has lent it a kind of class distinction -- an expatriate decides to go abroad in pursuit of fortune, freedom or fulfillment; an exile is forced by politics or want to become an immigrant. It's the difference between somebody with a house in Umbria and someone with an apartment in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Henry Shukman is too gifted a writer to push this cultural scrim into the foreground, but it's the unseen backdrop that binds together his richly rewarding new collection of short fiction, Mortimer of the Maghreb: Stories.
The book is divided into a pair of cycles, each composed of two stories and a novella.
There is a fearless quality to Shukman's fiction, as his characters and their situations recapitulate virtually every expatriate literary cliche of the last half century -- the boozy, befuddled foreign correspondent, the man adrift in his own tropical rootlessness, the philandering alcoholic artist, and even that reliable standby of pulp and screen, the exotic native whore.
Shukman's bold stroke here is to invest his characters with a conviction that proceeds as if none of these figures ever had been worked into caricature. The risk is clear, but he defies it with such elegant elan that the danger passes before a reader realizes just how much he's enjoying himself -- and there is a great deal of good old-fashioned literary pleasure to be had from these stories. Part of the satisfaction comes from experiencing familiar characters anew, but also from finding them in forms (the short story and novella) that the arbiters of commercial fiction have judged almost antique. (It's interesting to wonder, though, whether a new generation of readers, starved for time and short on attention, might not find a congenial way into literature through his genre.)
In fact, during an interview not long ago, Shukman -- an award-winning English poet and travel writer living in New Mexico -- had interesting things to say about both the importance of this genre and about the importance of accessibility in literary fiction: "Highbrow and obscure are not the same charge," he said. "Easy reading is hard writing. The novel, for example, is a compromised form -- not just its length, but its shape, the typical plots, and so on, all have been to some extent dictated by commerce. Arguably only the short story and the novella are prose forms that could be labeled 'uncompromised art.' Not that commerce is necessarily a bad thing for art. Even Pindar had to produce to a given market demand -- Homer too, of course."
That workmanlike ambition is brilliantly realized in this collection, particularly in the stories and novella concerning the journalist Charles Mortimer -- or "Mortimer of the Maghreb," as he comes to be known after an event that makes his reputation and haunts him through subsequent disgrace, decline and disappointment.
Mortimer is not a resident foreign correspondent in the American style, posted to one country for years on end. He's one of those parachutists beloved of the British press -- peripatetic characters who hopscotch from one continent to another in gin- or whiskey-fueled pursuit of wars, natural disasters and the odd celebrity interview. (Our protagonist once persuaded the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa to sit for a simultaneous chat.)
At the height of his powers, "Charles Mortimer, chronicler of wars and plagues and ruptured governments, interviewer of popes and pashas, had had columns set aside for his use in papers the world over. He had smoked a Cohiba with Castro, dined on a Maine lobster with Reagan, and had drunk beer with the mad Billy Fuentes, beer baron of Bolivia, commanding chief of the death squads."
By the time we meet him in the title story, however, things have gone badly south. Five-and-a-half years before -- in the era of glasnost -- Mortimer had parlayed an exclusive interview with the Soviet president into a worldwide scoop about the impregnability of communist rule. Weeks later, the Berlin Wall came down, and, "It was as if every editor and source he had was implicated in his shame."
As a consequence, Mortimer now "dabbled with foolish columns in the Standard and the Mail, long inches in which he was free to scribble himself hoarse on any matter that piqued him: waiters no longer wearing ties, wine lists in which the Australian imports had squeezed the clarets into an appendix; the new 'Metro' taxicabs. At three in the afternoon, with copy due for the evening editions, it provided an inexhaustible supply of annoyances for a man with a keyboard in his lap and a bottle of Pauillac in his belly."
At precisely that moment, a figure from Mortimer's past arrives and he is off to the scene of his greatest triumph, the Western Sahara, in pursuit of redemption and something more.
Just what he lost becomes clear in the novella "The Garden of God," which caps the sequence and is the jewel of this fine collection. As a poet, Shukman is known for the evocative brilliance of his physical description, and you get a sense of why in this opening paragraph, which finds Mortimer in a New York saloon:
"At six o'clock the bar on the east side of Seventh Avenue had just been found by the late sun. Mortimer watched as the smooth frosted panes of its four windows were suffused with a dense glow. They lit up like sheets of light: a hazy rich light as of a harvest sunset in the fields back home and long ago in the England of his childhood, which no longer existed; or as of the desert in the later afternoon when the torture of daytime was over, when at last the sun granted a reprieve and for half an hour, while it rested above the horizon, all things settled into themselves, bathed in light like a charm.
"On the bar beside his glass is a folded copy of the Times (of London) and, in it, an obituary that sends a boozy, 56-year-old hack -- now 'overweight, supernumerary' -- back, in reverie at least, to the Tuareg insurgency in the Western Sahara, where he found love and a reputation.
In the process, he also found this insight on the bond between journalist and subject: "No man could resist the allure of publicity, Mortimer reflected. It amplified and liberated a cause to know that it was going to be written about, would achieve fame. Fame, and through that a chance at immortality; it elevated what was a skirmish, a brawl, a half-baked and shoddy-looking enterprise, into a moment of history."
One of this book's several pleasures is being reminded that not all that is romantic is wrong.
Tim Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times.