Secret history

Snatches

Martin Rowson <em>Jonathan Cape, 327pp, £11.99</em>

ISBN 0224076043

Here is a volume of loosely connected short stories in which the left-wing political cartoonist Martin Rowson proves himself a better writer than most writers. He fixes his eye for the grotesque on some pivotal moments of history, but there are also more abstract elements to his satire: fragments of sci-fi and pure fantasy; wordy academic vignettes. It's very ambitious and frequently beautiful, but some of it is quite irritating.

Probably the most irritating part is the afterword entitled "Provenance and Acknowledgements", in which Rowson lists some of the famous media people he knows and tells us that one of the stories "formed one of my answers in the Cambridge English tripos". I'm not sure we needed to know that. And just occasionally, Snatches has a look-at-me-I'm- top-of-the-class-in-English feel, Rowson being too fond of his rolling cadences and well-managed sub-clauses. There again, one story is written as a single sentence, possibly as a homage to Joyce. Certainly the setting is Ireland - it's about a republican who muses on the civil war while sweating money. Now . . . why? I didn't get it. An opaque ending is often the hallmark of a good short story, but Rowson calls down the fog a little too often.

Whenever I could follow his narratives, though, I liked them, and I think I was with him for 80 per cent of the time. Much of the satire is against religion. In one story, Cortes arrives too early in Aztec Mexico, missing the propitious time in the Aztec calendar. Moctezuma does not take him for the god Quetzalcoatl, and the Spaniard is put to death. Moctezuma still has his doubts about the theology of it all, but he is then given a bracing lecture in common sense by an albino subject held as a freak in the king's zoo: "Well, take your problem: was he or wasn't he? Quetzalcoatl, I mean. Now, I'd say not, but that's just my opinion. But I wonder, does it really matter either way?" The albino goes on to suggest that "the Quetzalcoatl cult, if you think about it, isn't really doing Mexico any favours, is it?".

These demotic Pete'n'Dud exchanges in grandiose historical contexts occur frequently and work very well. In another story, set in Hitler's bunker on suicide day, the bullet racing towards the Fuhrer's temple is magically slowed, allowing Trotsky to lecture him on where he went wrong. A petulant Hitler denounces "that fat Jew, Churchill", and the conversation proceeds as follows.

Trotsky: "Hang on, hang on. Churchill isn't a Jew." Hitler: "I think you'll find I'm right." Trotsky: "But he doesn't even look Jewish!" Hitler: "Precisely."

The best story, and the one with the greatest allegorical force, is "The Time Portal". This gateway - "merely a rather short tunnel attached to some simple if mystifying machinery" - is opened near the mouth of the Channel Tunnel in Kent, with sponsorship from Goldman Sachs and Starbucks. "For reasons no one could adequately explain, travelling from one instant in time to another took about 20 minutes." The portal is inaugurated with a brief trip made by the minister of time. He goes to "a Thursday afternoon in late June, 1787, from which he soon safely returned, to polite applause", but logistical difficulties soon undermine the vision.

The queues are terrible, for one thing. And it is only possible to visit the late Georgian and Regency periods, into which visitors emerge on the Thames mudbank, just below the Tower. Many turn back immediately, disgusted by the putrid Fleet ditch. A few venture further afield, "but a dead baby abandoned beyond Borough or a mounted figure eyeing you hungrily from the side of a windmill near Archway usually made them turn and hurry back to the present". The real headache, how-ever, begins when refugees from the past begin to seek sanctuary in the more salubrious modern day . . .

Each of the "snatches" is preceded by a Rowson illustration. Whenever I've seen his work in the past it has been vividly coloured. In fact, I associate him with the colour puce, of which he seems very fond. But here they are rendered in monochrome, reminding me (no expert here) of Mervyn Peake - more muted, perhaps, but equally soulful. If I were Rowson I would have insisted on special-quality paper and a hardback binding to frame them. He might think about doing so next time around, because on the strength of Snatches there certainly will be a next time.

Andrew Martin's novel The Lost Luggage Porter will be published by Faber & Faber in May