Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lloyd Jones/MISTER PIP

Lloyd Jones is a New Zealander who has been writing for over 20 years. This is his sixth novel, but the first to be widely published overseas - it won the Commonweath Writers' Prize and made the Man Booker shortlist last year.

It is a tale of childhood on the South Pacific island of Bougainville, during its struggle for independence from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. It is the story of Matilda, a spirited young girl who lives in a tiny village beside the beach. When the government imposes a strict blockade on the island and sends in troops and helicopters to crush the rebellion, life becomes hard for the villagers. All the foreigners quit the island, leaving them without a teacher, a pastor, a doctor. And they live in mounting dread of the atrocities they hear reported (committed by both sides in the civil war - the situation is depressingly similar to the Sierra Leone conflict described in Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, which I read a few months ago) reaching their homes.

Only one white man remains, the skinny, elderly Mr Watts. He is married to a local woman, but they are both somewhat eccentric and reclusive, and are viewed as objects of curiosity and derision. However, in these changed circumstances Mr Watts volunteers himself as a teacher in the village school, and, although his knowledge is limited, he proves to be a kindly and creative mentor, and is soon idolised by Matilda and her classmates. His 'secret weapon' is a copy of Great Expectations, with which he holds the children spellbound, reading them one chapter each day. Later, when the book is lost, he sets the children the task of 'retrieving' it by recording their own versions of the parts of the story they remember and like best.

For the uneducated islanders, the book is quite unknown, its power over their children unfathomable. They are apt to conflate "Mr Dickens" the author, and later Pip the protagonist, with the teacher, Mr Watts - a confusion of identities with which he happily plays along, though ultimately with very unfortunate consequences. The second element of the central tragedy towards which the story inexorably moves is Matilda's mother, who comes into bitter conflict with Mr Watts: she resents the affection he inspires in her daughter and, as a fiercely religious woman, she distrusts Mr Watts's atheism and what she perceives as a lack of moral rigour in the story of Great Expectations. With the two people she most loves and admires set in opposition to each other (her father has been absent for several years, working at a copper mine in Australia, so Mr Watts is perhaps partly filling the paternal role in her life), young Matilda faces a terrible dilemma.

This is a charming tale, a wonderful celebration of the fascination of reading (and writing) and of the liberating power of the imagination. It is also a meditation on the nature of identity, as Great Expectations' themes of orphanhood, migration, redemption, and self-reinvention provide rich parallels with the strange life story of Mr Watts, the only white man on a black island, and later with Matilda herself, who becomes an exile from her home.

It is a very short novel, easy to read and movingly told. However, I do have just a few quibbles with it. I found the section where Watts spends several evenings telling the villagers and a group of rebel soldiers a fantastical account of his life story (woven together from Great Expectations itself, and from the various tales that the villagers themselves have told when invited into his classroom as guest speakers) implausible and unsatisfying (though perhaps this is partly deliberate: Matilda herself comments at one point that his tale is degenerating into the sort of incoherent rambling that a nervous Joe Gargery lapses into in her beloved book). I also found the coda - where Matilda visits New Zealand to find Mr Watts's original home, and then moves to London to pursue a career as a Dickens scholar - to be dull, unnecessary, anti-climactic.

My major reservations, though, are about the choice of narrative voice. I don't doubt that Lloyd Jones has done considerable research about Bougainville and has almost certainly visited it. He does evoke the cadences of its people's language and the idiosyncracies of their worldview quite well; indeed, in its best moments, this novel feels like an oral history of island life. However, there are times when he is striving too hard to tease out the symbolism of something, or to render a poetic phrase, moments that seem jarringly out of character even for a grown-up Matilda, much more so for the young teenager who is purportedly telling the story. I think perhaps this is always a problem when narrating a story through the eyes of a child (or anyone with limited powers of perception or expression), that the author will not be able to sustain that voice consistently, will succumb to the temptation occasionally to make observations of a more adult or sophisticated character, perhaps even to include elements of a more detached, 'omniscient' narration. And Jones's attempt to create a narrative point of view quite different from his own experience is here quite exceptionally ambitious, not to say arrogant: a middle-aged white man trying to re-create the perceptions of a young black woman (who is in turn trying to re-create the memories of her traumatized childhood). He is, on the whole, remarkably successful in pulling it off, but nonetheless one cannot help but be at times uncomfortably aware of the layers of artifice involved.

I suppose my qualms about the narrative voice here are not just technical, but moral. It doesn't feel decent to me for an outsider to appropriate such a personal, such a traumatic story about events so recent (you feel that Matilda's story must have been - should have been - based on real events, but there is no mention of this in the credits). I find it difficult to construct any argument to support this view - it's really just a gut feeling, a sense that some events are so terrible that one should be wary of retelling them for purposes of entertainment, that their importance imposes some sort of duty of truthfulness even in fictional accounts of them, and that such truthfulness can only really be achieved by people who lived through those events. Holocaust stories should only be written by those who directly experienced the Holocaust. This could be an interesting point for discussion.

However, if you can dismiss such reservations (and I suppose I did while I was reading it; it's only subsequently that they've been troubling me again), I can highly recommend this book for the quality of its writing and the charm of its central theme.

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