The Old Men At The Zoo,

by Angus Wilson: Seeker &Warburg. 18s.

this is Angus Wilson’s fourth novel, and an acceptable review ought, I’m sure, to trace something of its relation with earlier ones, and possibly to question the recurring view (see for example John Mander’s recent book) that these novels recapitulate and dilute old material (i.e. better dealt with by the collections of stories), or at best, dress up old themes in scanty contemporary garments. Time however is short, (and the earlier novels aren’t), so one comparatively minor point will have to stand for the whole comparison. Unlike its predecessors, this novel is carefully designed as a tract for the times, and there are even a few signs (“The Old Men at the Zoo”) that there’s a special application to our rulers. By “message”, however, the more sensitive fiction-addict needn’t expect to be too grossly belaboured because any satirical intention is contained within an intricate and universal formed structure. The author has drawn on three conventions: namely, on the kind of novel which uses a first-person narrative to dramatise a single character’s complete moral condition by a kind of self-exposure; on the kind which relies on a strong, almost separable “plot” —here a Snow-like tale of political intrigue, decision and responsibility told with un-Snow-like speed and economy; (one has a contrasting vision of old Lewis Eliot shovelling steadily through Strangers And Brothers); and the kind of novel-parable about the future whose main business is to alarm the present. From the first two formulas, the novel gets its complexity, and from the third its contemporary point. Slighter than the others (slimmer too than their not wholly rewarding girth), it foregoes any real extension of themes already begun. What it gains will I hope become clear.

The date is 1970, and the narrator Simon Carter, Secretary of the Zoological Society, himself a good zoologist whose expeditionary life was cut short by ill-health, and now the administrative instrument, efficient and, despite his critical wit, loyal, for the furthering of certain schemes for the Zoo’s development. Each of these is the personal creation of the Zoo’s successive Directors. Scheme One is a plan for re-siting the whole Regents Park collection of animals in an extensive Natural Reserve on the Welsh Marches. Carter has a special interest in this, since he’d be able to do some more research without risk to his health, or interfering with the administrative job which he likes. Scheme Two is for the creation of a pastiche Victorian Zoo on the Park site, and on the collapse of Scheme One, Carter has, unwillingly but still efficiently, to devote himself to that. These events are placed against a background of war scare between Britain and the embattled Common Market powers which culminates in an actual war. This political theme intrudes upon the Zoo affairs on the day of the opening of the Victorian Zoo which is destroyed by the blast of heavy bombing. A bungled attempt at evacuating the animals leads to the death of the most beautiful of them, the lemurs. Peace is finally made by a fascistically-inclined government which finds its support amongst the handicapped and unqualified of what is evidently a meritocratic society, and which for its supporters’ pleasure persuades the third Director to arrange gladiatorial games between the predators and the government’s political prisoners. Carter breaks his connection with the Zoo at this point, is sent to a concentration camp at Enfield, but survives this punishement to become the Zoo’s Director under a Liberation Government, with hopes of re-opening a modified version of the original Reserve.

This summary misses out much of the intrigue, all of Carter’s relation with his wife, the characterisation of the three Directors (and other Zoo officials). Moreover, the blurb concentrates attention on Carter’s identity as bureaucrat, and suggests that the theme of the novel really lies in the ambiguous moral position of the loyal administrator. Possibly so, but all these details occur in relation to the Zoo, which in fact is used to expose three different political possibilities, and these seem to me to carry the main burden of meaning. The Reserve, evidently the right place for the animals, is also a place where, in Wordsworthian fashion, men can recover a proper balance of mental and physical life. Modern Britain denies them this—the Green Belts have been built up, there is almost no countryside left except the Scottish Highlands, and the Welsh Mountains. The Scheme for the Reserve stands then as a type of needed social therapy. But the moral weakness of its originator, (he lacks the essential Wilson virtues of courage and honesty) combined with the machinations of an ambitious politician, the Zoo’s President and owner of a chain of influential newspapers which manipulate the warscare in his interest, bring the first scheme to a halt, and replace it—again for reasons of power—with the second. This represents a neurotic theatrical and backward-turning patriotism, a vein of political thinking which by preventing a sensible adaptation to the pressure from Europe leads to the war. Finally, the slaughter of the animals, the bungled evacuation (planned by a non-political scientist), the gladiatorial games—these are all instances of the level to which the political and social stasis of the early part of the novel can reduce a society for refusing intelligent adaptation and change. Correspondingly, the Zoo, or the animals in it, stand for the instinctual energies which feed conscious moral and political life, and which men distort at their peril. (This fusion of the psychological and social is of course very characteristic of Mr. Wilson’s fiction, and their identification by means of a flexible and suggestive symbol is more satisfactory than some earlier more mechanical efforts: in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, for example). Carter’s relationship with the different schemes follows and helps to identify his particular spectrum of failings and virtues. (There is also a connection between this and his marriage, but not altogether clear). The general thoroughness with which the Zoo-as-symbol is worked out may not emerge from this summary, but at any rate the broad outline should, and this is enough to suggest one or two problems of interpretation.

Taken as political warning for example, the situation seems clear: intelligent use of natural resources (human, vegetable, animal), acceptance of change, acceptance of responsibility—Carter here is important as being one of the few who makes his decisions in a real context; does what he can when he can’t control the context; and is always favourably contrasted with the uninvolved and irresponsible absolute moralists, who either carp, or stay away—but taken as a statement of political ideas, it is much less than clear. Thus, the European Federation, capitalist, commercialised, aggressive (so is Britain of course), is scarcely a positive alternative to the head-in-the-sand nationalism. It is part of the context that has to be accepted before anything else can be done (I think). Only the Reserve offers a positive idea, but the story hedges it about with qualifications. As a scheme, it was partly misconceived because of the inner failings of its originator; and the part that survives him is closely associated with Carter. Yet his fondness for animals is shown to represent an inadequacy with people, his exasperation and despair at their stupidity and self-engrossment, his tendency to postpone the troublesome moral decision, to regress, in a word, to an easier level of consciousness than he should allow himself. The animals and the Reserve are always presented with warmth and sympathy, qualities to which we are likely to respond in a novel of, on the whole, negative emotions, but the viewer of these scenes is always Carter. Is the warmth his only? Or does the novelist speak through him? On the whole, the symbol of the Reserve doesn’t have the necessary intensity and vividness to do both tasks, so that one is left with a highly ambiguous political ideal. By contrast, the destruction of the old Victorian Zoo, and the subsequent chaos conveys a grotesque painfulness, and has the haunting obsessive quality (which Mr. Wilson has noted admiringly as one of Dicken’s lasting strengths) which symbols must have to convince both literally and metaphorically. In comparison with the definition and strength of the old Zoo’s death, the Reserve’s weakness is all the more striking.

From these (somewhat sketchily indicated) difficulties, and one or two other similar indications. I think one criticism of the novel can be made. Despite the strictness, subtlety and formal ingenuity of the allegory, the flow of sympathy follows a slightly different pattern than it needs to, so that the novel does not wholly mean what it is evidently planned to mean. The point can be most simply illustrated by a remark of Carter’s wife. Commenting on her husband’s abilities as a mimic, she says that he always makes people into something either ridiculous or sad. So does the novel. And taken with the ambiguity of feeling about the Natural Reserve—the novelist’s positive goal? Or his character’s nostalgic escape? This suggests that Mr. Wilson’s Simon Carter is not a wholly autonomous characterisation, that the novel is possibly more personal than its elaborate and skilful formality at first implies.