Tangled in a Recognizable World

`THE Gates of Ivory" is the concluding novel in Margaret Drabble's ambitious trilogy chronicling the lives of three women who met as students at Cambridge University in the 1950s and went on to watch their youthful socialist hopes overshadowed by the gathering clouds of the Thatcherian counterreformation. "The Radiant Way" (1987) and "A Natural Curiosity" (1989) focused chiefly on the changing state of Britain and the growing sense of political confusion experienced by well-meaning, reasonable people no longer able to believe the promises of the left, yet profoundly dismayed by the triumph of a hard-line conservative credo of self-interest.

In "The Gates of Ivory," Drabble expands her purview to include the daunting, deeply disturbing subject of the Khmer Rouge mass murders in Cambodia. Throughout the trilogy, she delineates the many ways in which the public and private, political and personal elements of lives are interrelated. So now, when one of the three central characters, London psychiatrist Liz Headleand, receives a mysterious package in the mail from her friend Stephen Cox, who went to Cambodia to search for the "truth" about Pol Po t, we are hardly surprised.

Drabble writes about a recognizable world, where technology and terrorism, luxury and squalor, civility and savagery exist side by side - or suddenly confront one another in a murderous embrace.

As we follow Liz contacting friends and colleagues, looking for leads on what happened to Stephen, we also get to hear Stephen's story, from his arrival in the glittering, sinister city of Bangkok to the moment when he passes from the "Good Time" of a world where individuals have some control over their fate to the "Bad Time" of one where there is nothing to do but wait in fear for the next arbitrary bolt of destruction.

On his quest, Stephen meets an enterprising Thai ex-beauty queen with a taste for precious stones - and any other kind of investment opportunity - and a sweet-natured blond photographer who has taken stunning pictures of the many victims of violence and dislocation. Both offer to help: Stephen sees the sexy Miss Porntip as a Shakespearean Dark Lady, promising admittance through the "ivory gate" of false dreams, and the handsome photographer, Konstantin, as a Fair Youth or good angel, symbolizing the trut h-telling "gate of horn."

Stephen grants that Miss Porntip's enthusiasm for capitalism has some validity: "Perhaps a future in which brightly dressed, well-paid film extras lounged idly around ... eating ice-cream ... was greatly to be preferred to a future of ancient enmities, to guerrilla warfare and ... famine and fear and hate and death?"

Stephen, however, is a man with a fatal nostalgia for a lost simplicity that never was. "Stephen," Drabble informs us, "has a bleak view of human nature as it exists in its known manifestations, and an ecstatic view of its possibilities if ever it were to be released from them.... [He] believes that a deep, violent, volcanic shift is required to change the way things are. After this cataclysm, human nature, purged and pure, will find its own sweet natural level.... The flaws in Stephen Cox's logic are bl indingly obvious."

For some reason, Stephen feels a need to discover whether Pol Pot (who may or may not be alive) was a totally corrupt monster or a well-meaning man whose ideals led him into extremism. He somehow feels that discovering the latter to be true would restore his lost leftist faith.

At this point, however, neither Stephen nor Drabble make much sense: Wouldn't it be far more damning for a leftist believer to learn that it was well-intentioned people who paved this particular road to the hell of the killing fields? If Pol Pot and his cohorts turned out to be "only" aberrant monsters, the leftist could still cling to the hope that a revolution run by truly "good" people could succeed after all.

Drabble's chatty narrative, pervading all three novels in the trilogy, permits a certain lack of intellectual rigor to creep into the discussion. But it would be unfair to say that she is trivializing horror, when in fact she is merely showing how we live in a world where after-dinner chat and gross atrocities can intersect.

But if Drabble's style does not actually detract from her novel or trivialize her treatment of its serious themes, her decision to narrate a novel - a trilogy of novels - in the style of a television commentary voice-over may leave readers feeling as though they are reading the scenario for a novel rather than a novel itself.

Rather than admit to reverting to a kind of literary shorthand, Drabble goes so far as to imply that she is writing a new kind of novel, better suited to dealing with the peculiar horrors of the age than an old-fashioned novel "with a conventional plot sequence" tracing the fates of one or two characters.

"[S]uch a narrative will not do," she proclaims, en passant. "The mismatch between narrative and subject is too great. Why impose the story line of an individual fate upon a story which is at least in part to do with numbers? A queasiness, a moral scruple overcomes the writer at the prospect of selecting individuals from the mass of history, from the human soup."

All very well, but Drabble has chosen individuals to focus on, and her plot sequence, interweaving two or three story lines, is conventional and suspenseful enough to appeal to the most old-fashioned reader.

The true oddity of her book is in the realm of voice and style. And here, her voice-over television manner, the cozy complicity established between writer and reader, at times threatens, if not to trivialize, at the very least to distance the reader from horrors and make one lose sight of the masses and the individuals alike.

Drabble's achievement in opening her fiction to global events is a significant one. Her trilogy may well stand as a moving and believable portrait of our times. But to suggest that her serviceable (and certainly very readable) narrative technique represents an advance over the "con- ventional" techniques of a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky in exploring the horror of violence, the folly of ideology, or the corruptions of the human heart is just plain silly.

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