Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury (Secker & Warburg, £14.99)
Barnaby Jameson MALCOLM Bradbury's Doctor Criminate is a menacing satire on early 1990s Europe just as the iron curtain is hoicked up and the dictatorial worm-life beneath starts slithering away. A Europe where the loudest sound above the shattering of communist ideals is the thud of secret police files. having their contents split open.
Transcending the ugly world of post-communist realpolitik is Doctor Criminate, "Great Thinker of the Age of Glasnost". Philosopher, novelist, academic, commentator, lover, visionary, journalist, artist, bon viveur and idealist, Doctor Criminate is a walking paradox.
The ultimate jet-setting Marxist, he flits effortlessly between East and West, a globally celebrated thinker as relaxed in the company of Ceausescu and Pol Pot as with Reagan and Thatcher. And with his souffle; bouffant, Hermes ties and Gucci shoes, there is no Hollywood actress who wouldn't scratch to he on his arm. Who is he?
Lumbered with unravelling the mystery of Doctor Criminate is the narrator, Francis Jay. Journalist on the make and 1990s
New Man down to the last spoke of this mountain bike, Jay is forced when his "serious Sunday" closes down to earn his keep researching for and otherwise gratifying the libidinous female controller of Nada TV Productions. Jay's briefing: to crawl Criminale's lives and loves, and distill the spicier bits for a block-buster documentary.
The task seems easy enough. Criminate is profiled almost monthly in Vanity Fair and Marie-Claire. There's even an official biography. But as Jay sifts through Criminale's bizarre life to date, inconsistencies start turning into toothless gaps; toothless gaps into an unfathomable void. The more the information the more the contradiction.
Why was Criminate given such easy access to the West? Why is there no trace of his second wife? Why was his biography not written by the author on the cover? Why does he bank in Lausanne?
Tracking doun the answers Jay finds himself on an unwitting slalom across the Europe of the ERM, the EMU and the ECU, breezing through Vienna, Budapest, Milan, Lausanne, Brussels, Stuttgart. En route he encounters some finely-penned Euro-eccentrics Hungarian yuppies in red braces burning up the streets of Budapest in BMWs. Austrian professors who don't write their own books and hooverobsessed black-trousered female spies, along with Bradbury's usual academic assortment of balding post-modernists and displaced post-structuralists.
Half intellectual stake-out, half caustic Euro-send up, Malcolm Bradbury's Doctor Criminate alternates between passages of Bradbury at his narrative best and stretches of comparative flatness. The author pinpoints the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with clinical accuracy just as he gets behind the eyes of a mid-20s media man on the make with almost uncanny precision. (Bradbury also finds room for the odd honest quip: why, the narrator asks the woman at Heathrow Airport trying to palm him off with Chanel Egdiste, don't they call it Terminal Depression?) Yet at times the scent of the hunt for Bazlo Criminale loses its sharpness and evaporates into tedium.
All in all Bradbury's latest novel is a work of meticulous observation and stylish execution. Witty. biting and sharply up to the minute, a trip through Bradbury's Europe well worth taking. And Doctor Criminate himself, with his genius and his vanity, his lust and his egotism, his arrogance and his mendacity, is an immortal antihero for the 1990s.
Barnaby Jameson is a freelance writer formerly on the London Evening Standard.