Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Old Men At The Zoo - Angus Wilson

Some things don’t change. I was ambivalent about this book when I first read it in the 1970s and I felt the same way this time. There is no doubt that it is well written. Angus Wilson is a really good writer and undeservedly neglected. And given that it is a broad and satirical side-swipe at a number of targets, it has not dated (despite being set in the early 1970s) and the plot is extremely plausible. But…

The story tells of the political infighting of two factions at London Zoo – one that wishes to move forward and offer the animals the limited liberty of a wildlife park and the other that wishes to restore the Zoo to its Victorian glory. The wider political parallels are obvious. This petty bickering is set against a background of deteriorating international politics and eventual nuclear war in Europe.

This is just the sort of story I would normally relish. Petty bickering in the face of annihilation. Beautifully observed characters. A keen and satiric study of social class. But it leaves me unmoved. And it leaves me unmoved because the author has not provided us with a sympathetic character. As a first person narrative, he had the ideal opportunity, but failed to do so. The main character is a cold fish and as unloveable as all those that he constantly mimics and criticises. Indeed, the only character for whom I had any sympathy is killed off about half way through.

This is, of course, a personal reaction to the book. Others may find that Carter, the narrator, is likeable. Had it been a third person narrative, I would have had no problem. But living inside the head of an objectionable snob sullied what might otherwise have been one of my favourite books.