Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jonathan Lynn, Anita Desai and Michael Ondaatje.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister by Jonathan Lynn

The memoirs of the co-writer of Margaret Thatcher's favourite sitcom are unsurprisingly welcomed by Roger Lewis in the Daily Mail: "Lynn points out, indeed, that though Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were first aired during the Thatcher years (and sold to 84 countries abroad), the scripts were formulated during the era of Callaghan and Wilson - and, of course, the jokes still work in the era of Blair, Brown and Cameron. Sir Humphrey's comment about 'open government - you can be open, or you can have government'; the remarks about the best hospitals being empty ones, which nevertheless are still staffed by a full quota of highly-paid managers; the silky logic arguing that 'the citizens of a democracy have a right to be ignorant and so do their elected representatives; knowledge only means complicity and guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity' - all this still strikes chords."

In the Independent, William Cook sees it as a great comedy how-to book, but also more than that. "Its series of brief but astute biographies linger in the mind's eye long after you've forgotten most of the rules. Lynn reveals relatively little about himself (his breezy writing style is hard to penetrate) but he's a shrewd observer of other people, especially performers. His lightning sketch of John Cleese and Graham Chapman captures the essence of their partnership in a paragraph. His tender portraits of Leonard Rossiter and Jack Rosenthal are remarkably acute."

 

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

For Margaret Drabble in the New Statesman, Anita Desai new collection of three novellas is "profoundly elegiac. They evoke a vanishing world that India today, with its booming economy and its rampant modernisation, will soon forget, and we see this world at the moment of its fading, caught as it literally crumbles to dust", although "'Translator Translated', which is sandwiched between these mildly despairing retrospective narratives, strikes a more challenging note. It is not a happy tale, but it has bite." Keith Miller, in the Telegraph, concurs: "In its smallness we are invited to see concision and restraint; the cover artwork permits us to infer a kind of elegiac post-Orientalism in the subject matter. So perhaps it doesn't come as too much of a surprise when these qualities duly manifest themselves. But it is a pleasure - though a bracing and discomfiting pleasure, at certain points." In the Guardian, Maggie Gee finds it more upbeat: "The characters, sketched in with Desai's usual blend of irony and tender sympathy, are people who look at pictures and read books... Last of all, but most beautifully, in her final story Desai writes about the secret part of all human beings that can create no matter how wretched our circumstances, a precious gift she suggests must at all costs flee the roaring, vacuous maw of 21st-century media." She considers it "her best since Fasting, Feasting."

 

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje's memoir-that-isn't-a-memoir of journeying from 1950s Ceylon to England pleases Roma Tearne in the Independent: "As in Anil's Ghost, The Cat's Table employs a deceptively light touch, hiding a carefully constructed and tender hymn to the enigma of journey.... For Ondaatje the poet, economy has always been a watchword, and his imagery is compressed and sparse. Take, for instance, his description of the ship, the Oronsay, which we are told is 'lit like a long brooch'." For Harry Ritchie in the Daily Mail, "it starts with a series of what seem to be unconnected, memoirish vignettes." But both concur that it is, as Tearne puts it, "a beautifully crafted whole" and, according to Ritchie, "one of the most admirable and enthralling literary novels of the year."

The Cat's Table is reviewed by Leo Robson in the current issue of the New Statesman.