The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   114

The Seven Who Fled

by Frederic Prokosch

New York: Harper and Brothers, 1937
Re-issued, with a new introduction by the author, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984

Where Every Prospect Pleases, and Every Man Is Vile

I was led to this novel by an essay of Gore Vidal's, where he enthusiastically commends Prokosch's books in general and this one in particular. Vidal's recommendations have been good to me, and The Seven Who Fled looked like it would push sundry of my buttons. The eponymous seven (avatars, it would seem, of the deadly sins), Europeans who have wound up in Kashgar at the western edge of Chinese Central Asia at some unspecified time in the 1930s, flee eastwards from rebellion and unrest across the great deserts and mountains.

Prokosch writes some of the most beautiful, elegant, skillfully evocative prose it has been my good fortune to encounter. He conjures up landscapes he had never seen complete in every detail before the inner eye --- or deliberately, tantalizingly vague. If there were magic, it would sound very like his words, moving with the lazy, rippling, shadowed flow of quicksilver in sunset light.

I do not want to think about what evil spirit suggested to him that he break the spell by introducing characters. His Asiatics are a collection of racist cardboard cutouts, and rendered in such a dumb, unconvincing way as to be terminally annoying (while those of many equally racist and far less able contemporaries are not). As for his seven Europeans, they are not merely strangers to all constructive and generous impulses, but even to rational selfishness. The possbility that this is an allegorical statement of sin's relation to stupidity doesn't make up for the dirty, sticky feeling ones gets from inhabiting such minds.

If there is a plot, as opposed to a succession of scenes, it eluded me. About two-thirds of the way through, I uttered the Eight Deadly Words --- ``I don't care what happens to these people'' --- and started skimming off the delectable descriptive prose-poems. I probably should have done so much earlier.

Prokosch was, manifestly, a tremendously talent verbal artist. I cannot decide whether he used that art to say something false, ugly and boring, or whether (as I hope) he used it to say nothing at all. In either case, his talent was shamefully --- judging by his introduction, joyously --- squandered. I may give him another chance, with another book, but for now I put him away with admiration only for the books he could have written.

xi + 479 pp.
Central Asia / Fiction
Out of print as a hardback (no ISBN for Harper edition, FSG edition 0374261288) and as a paperback (FSG edition only, ISBN 0374518319). LoC S3531.R78 S4.
6 January 2000