Brian Morton

Much of the most interesting fiction over the past weeks and months has in some way addressed itself to that old dialogue between the old and new worlds, how it renders itself in literary terms, and how it seems to resolve or dissolve.

It certainly dissolves in David Malouf's wonderfully intense The Conversations at Curlow Greek (Chatto amp; Windus Pounds 14.99), a broodingly visionary encounter between a condemned bushranger and the trooper sent to oversee his execution. Both men are of Irish origin, and it is the distance between them that gives the book its ambiguous power.

Malouf has almost always, from Johno, onwards used paired and opposing male protagonists to drive his fiction. It is a device which is now so deeply rooted as to be, presumably, unconscious, but it has never before been given such a believably unschematic treatment. The relationship between Carney and Adair is both violent and humane, tender and profoundly intellectual.

If the Old World is only a green-breasted memory in Malouf's novel, it has almost faded entirely from Janette Turner Hospital's extraordinary Oyster (Virago Pounds 14.99). It evokes a world no less kaleidoscopically bizarre than that of her "final" novel The Last Magician, but this time Hospital, having regrouped her narrative resources, has set her book in the outback among the opal fields and the tense millenarian communities of northern Queensland.

Sparked off by the Waco, Texas, siege and shootings, Hospital examines the role of charismatic leaders (here the eponymous Oyster) in a society which is both incredibly ancient and utterly of the here and now, where coprophite (fossilised dinosaur shit, basically) and crushed Coke tins co-exist in an arid space.

With Beryl Bainbridge, the issue is different and the cultural purview significantly relocated. Her latest and, in some respects, strangest novel is Every Man For Himself (Duckworth Pounds 14.99). This is by no means Bainbridge's first attempt at historical fiction, nor is it the first fictional treatment of the Titanic disaster. Its merits are that it subordinates the usual ill-represented nonsense about what "really happened" to some sense of what the voyage and, by extension, its tragic end, meant to the people on board. Told from the point of view of the shipping line owner's nephew, Morgan, it has the dry, laconic style that Bainbridge handles so well, and in characters such as the ethnic refugees who peopled all classes on the ship or the enigmatic Scurra who seems to have a hand in its fate, it is quite clearly a novel about ambitions and thwarted dreams.

There is a sense, too, that John LeCarre's fiction is almost always concerned with such issues and that the apparatus of spying and intelligence is only a rough armature for something altogether more profound. It was assumed that the collapse of a Cold War mentality would swiftly leave LeCarre without a subject, but The Tailor of Panama (Hodder amp; Stoughton, Pounds 16.99) is arguably his best book since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Set in the city where the balance of Old and New Worlds reaches an almost classic apotheosis, it is a masterful portrayal of human weaknesses.In the spyrunner Andrew Osnard and his target Harry Pendel, there is a charge of energy not much less intense than that between Carney and Adair in the Malouf. But whereas the outback is a relatively blank canvas, in LeCarre's world there is a complex society in which nothing is ever simple and in which morality is too deeply tinged ever to be merely "grey". Read together, these four books tell us much more than might reasonably be expected from fiction about our current cultural binds and traps.

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