The lost city henry shukman



Keywords: books,fiction,culture,john burnside
Description: John Burnside is captivated by Henry Shukman's evocation of a harsh, forbidding landscape in The Lost City.

In the opening chapter of The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy paints the picture of a bleak, forbidding landscape, a wild heathland that seems to exist beyond human concerns, and beyond human measurements of time and morality - and then, just when the reader has begun to wonder if this is a novel about people at all, he introduces a solitary figure, a man so dwarfed by the land over which he travels that he might be an apparition, or a rumour. It is one of the great creations of terrain as a character in English fiction, yet it would not be too far-fetched to say that the opening of Henry Shukman's new novel not only reminds us of this great passage, but also comes close to emulating it. It is a terrible burden to place on a writer, to compare him to Hardy, but the landscape Shukman creates for the opening of The Lost City shares something of the same timelessness, the same indifferent landscape from which a lone figure emerges: not, in this case, a reddleman, but Jackson Small, a traumatised soldier whose path through life has brought him to the arid deserts of northern Peru in search of a lost Inca city.

Small is also lost: an errant soul, with nothing but a tent and a rucksack of notebooks and spare clothes, most of which he will soon lose through his own folly and blind trust. What has brought him to this barren land is not so much a dream as a fool's errand: like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, he has come to South America for reasons that are too deep in his own soul for him to fathom and, like Last, he falls in with terrifying company.

He is not, however, new to the continent: while in the army, he had been stationed in Belize, where he met Connolly, a charismatic fellow-officer with whom he had formed a bond that transcended the ordinary fellow-feeling of soldiers in a conflict zone, a bond stronger, even, than brotherhood: "For a second it was as if he had been in this sunlit room before with this man. The way Connolly smiled at him from across the room, while he too smoked: there was a knowingness in it. He knew Jackson inside out, and Jackson was happy that he did. It hit him then: perhaps what he felt for this man was something like love."

It is Connolly who introduces Small to the search for ancient civilisations, leading him on sorties into Guatemala to seek out minor ruins, while talking continually of the legendary lost city of La Joya, now vanished into the land, its vast wealth left undiscovered by repeated waves of invaders and explorers. Connolly is a man who can do anything and go anywhere, a gringo who is welcomed among the natives, a man both fanciful and wise - one whose life seems charmed until it ends in the confused aftermath of an ambush in the jungle. The part Jackson Small played - or believes he played - in Connolly's death is a burden he cannot bear when he is invalided out of the army; unable to remain in England, he returns to South America to continue Connolly's work. What follows is, in equal parts, a gripping story of adventure, casual treachery and intrigue, and the gradual redemption of an emotionally and morally ruined soul, pulled from the wilderness into which he has wandered by the unlikeliest of rescuers.

Yet throughout The Lost City it is the land itself - from the grey deserts of Caballo Muerto to the buried city's labyrinth of fetid tunnels and terrifying carved beasts - that sets the terms of the novel's inquiry. Meanwhile, at the centre of this nightmare world, Shukman creates, in Jackson Small, a character so hopelessly vulnerable to his surroundings, and so desperately in need of redemption, that we want to pray for his safe passage as he pursues a penitent's journey across a forbidding landscape that is not only brilliantly evoked, but is also a moral and philosophical entity in itself.

· John Burnside's new novel, The Devil's Footprints, is published by Jonathan Cape in March. To order The Lost City for £9.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to theguardian.com/bookshop






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