‘Among the Thin Ghosts’, by Constantine Phipps. Bloomsbury Publishing 1990

I bought this book second-hand and in a hurry because I wanted to get a bus home from town and did not have the exact fare in coins (Dublin’s buses do NOT give back change!). It was an inauspicious choice of what proved to be a most interesting read.

First-off, the book is described on its front cover as ‘An elegant thriller’. If by elegant is meant slow-moving, with little concern for fulfilling other people’s demands (and I’ve heard worse definitions) than this is an elegant read. But the word ‘thriller’ has a more demanding meaning. The book meanders and opinionates and strikes out across too many landscapes to deserve being described as a ‘thriller’. Nor are there any of those very suspenseful moments we usually expect from ‘thrillers’. In fact, thrilling moments there are none. And, come to think of it, isn’t the description ‘elegant thriller’ a little self-contradictory?

So all this adds up to a failure? Well, yes. And no. That is to say, as far as being a thriller goes… yes. But the book is fascinating ‘on another level’– And before you get frightened away by that phrase (which usually signals a major shifting of ground and the introduction of some kind of dubious ‘special pleading’) please hear me out.

Ever heard of Spengler? Me neither, or at least only vaguely, until this book. He, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), was a German historian and philosopher who, among other things, put forward a cyclical theory of the rise and decline of civilisations (thank you, Wikipedia!) and in the third chapter of this book (Phipps’s, not Spengler’s) we get a brief overview of one of his (Spengler’s, not Phipps’s) central cultural theories. It’s to do with cultures being imposed on, or being absorbed by, pre-existing cultures. In a lengthy conversational exchange between two of the book’s characters we hear that ‘… the Arabs had never been able to develop a proper culture of their own because the mould of Graeco-Roman civilisation was already there to receive them. Same thing with Russia. And of course that is exactly the problem here in Africa. The Europeans came with a new culture and set it in place, completely artificial and foreign to the existing tribal life. So it was bound to be pseudomorphic, forced into ancient, already developed patterns’.

This is all very interesting, you’ll say, (and there are a number of other very interesting cul-de-sacs) but has all this anything to do with the plot? Well, very little, I think. In fact, there’s very little ‘plot’, if by that we mean some kind of reasonably tight unfolding of a story. There is a story, but it is a loosely developed story which concerns the gradual degradation of a character who seemed to promise much when she was young. Nevertheless, this is a book which I enjoyed a lot. The characters all come across as quite believable and the descriptions of location are really well done. Recommended, but not to those who want ‘thrills’ (or even mild palpitations!).

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