Book review: Memory and Straw, by Angus Peter Campbell

Angus Peter Campbell's novel is rich in imagination and beautifully observed. Picture: Cailean Maclean
Angus Peter Campbell's novel is rich in imagination and beautifully observed. Picture: Cailean Maclean
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Angus Peter Campbell’s narrator finds the unique beauty in mankind’s strengths and flaws can’t be replicated in robots

The best novels make you think and feel at the same time. They are invented but also remembered. In writing a novel you are making something new, and yet you do this by recapturing what is past. In that recapture you also re-invent, because the past is itself what Hemingway called Paris, “a moveable feast”. Now that we live in a world of extraordinary and often disconcerting technological change, recovering the past is urgently necessary, an anchor in the storm-tossed sea of uncertainty.

Gavin, the narrator of Angus Peter Campbell’s remarkably rich and humane novel, is engaged in writing computer programmes which will give robots a human face. (There’s more to it than that, but this brief description of what he does will have to serve.) He is rich and successful and lives in New York and on Cape Cod with his delightful girlfriend Emma, a talented composer. He is very good at his work but it leaves him troubled and disturbed.

So he goes back in imagined time to retrieve the world as known and understood by his Gaelic-speaking ancestors, displaced from the green glen to the inhospitable shore on account of the harsh economic realism of the Clearances. This is not an exercise in comforting nostalgia, rather a narrative of how the world of today came into being and how people dealt with the transformation of their lives. Among them is Calum who sees and desires a fairy, leading Gavin to begin “to realise that fairy belief and the internet were one and the same thing: ways of filtering the universe.”

Gavin’s concern is with “the wisdom of the ages”. It seems to him “not merely wrong but immoral that the accumulated lessons of mankind would gradually disappear into so many graves and crematoriums”. There’s an echo of Edwin Muir in Campbell’s recognition of our exile from Eden and our need to recapture it in our individual and collective imagination. If you forget Eden, you are trapped in the wilderness of the Present.

The most influential person in his life – and character in the novel – is his aged grandfather, whose politics “were a curious mixture of arch Toryism and socialism” – in which he saw no contradiction; and was surely right to refuse to do so. He is aware that the folly of youth is to think you know everything, and so too is the folly of old age.

After delving deep in the past, and with his conversations with his grandfather still sounding in his mind, Gavin returns to his work of humanising robots and discovers – I think this is right – that using mathematics to make creatures that have the semblance of humanity is to devalue the human. The truth of our experience rests in the stories we tell and have been told. The ethics of artificial intelligence are questionable, and therefore the questions must be put: is it right – or obscene – to ”take every human trait and mechanise it for commercial purposes?” This is the old Faustian question in its new 21st century 
form, but for his fellow-workers in 
AI it is merely “that hoary old chestnut”. In truth it’s the fundamental question in today’s world. Gavin recognises that “Artificial Intelligence will do beautiful things as well. The problem is not what computers can do. It’s what humans do.”

One can only touch on the beauties and intelligence of this novel in a short review. In truth, a novel as rich in imagination and beautifully observed detail, as delicate in feeling and reflection as Memory and Straw requires and deserves at least two readings before it can be properly understood and appreciated. But that first reading is a delight. The novel is full of beauties, of humour too, and admiration for the fortitude of men and women. The evocation of the natural world is a reminder of eternal verities, and there is much wisdom here. As one character, an old Master Mariner says, “To be sure of himself is the last thing any man ought to be sure of”.

Memory and Straw is published by Luath, £12.99

Angus Peter Campbell is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 12 August