No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

#103: English Passengers -- Matthew Kneale

The eponymous passengers -- embarking on this voyage in 1857 -- are a mixed bunch. The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is looking for the Biblical Eden; Dr Thomas Potter is after evidence of Aryan supremacy; Timothy Renshaw is fleeing a dissolute lifestyle. They arrange passage on the Sincerity with Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a Manxman whose smuggling operation has gone badly wrong. Meanwhile in Tasmania, the penal colony is thriving; the natives are being oppressed, hunted, converted; and Peevay, son of an Aboriginal mother raped by a convict father, is trying to win his mother's love and find his own place.

The novel's told in different first-person voices, each quite distinct -- none more so than Peevay's, which the author states is intended "to portray someone intellugent and interested in words, who is from a culture wholly remote from that of white men but who has been educated by them, absorbing English phrases, both formal and informal, that were common in the 1830s".

Peevay's voice resonated with me, because it's a literary experiment that I've tried myself, and I was surprised to find that Kneale and I had used similar methods to attempt to convey a voice that is foreign, and naive, but far from stupid.
Of course I knew it wasn't really this fellow God who made us. It was other ones who are secret, like everybody knew. I never did say this to Robson, though, as I didn't want to grieve him when he was kindly saving us. ... Robson's God was a puzzle to confound. Everybody knew where our real ones were as they could see them every night shining in the sky, but when I asked Robson where God was, he just said 'He is everywhere'. He even said he was three people, which seemed some grievous mystery to confound. Also he told that if we didn't believe God was everywhere, then God would get angry and send us to some piss-poor place to get burnt, which was heinous, I did ponder. Our real ones never did care if you knew they were in the sky. They were just in the sky.

If there's a voice that doesn't quite work, it's Potter's, which is too modern, too abbreviated, and doesn't seem to follow its own internal rules. Also, reminds me of B. Jones' Diary. Content-wise, though demonstrably mad and deluded, he's all too evidently based on a number of 19th-century philosophers and naturalists.
Mules slipping, selves likewise, til all = greatly begrimed, boots heavy w. dirt. Only one little affected = half caste (no shoes) who = scampering through oblivious. This = further instance of his speedy reversion to aboriginal savagery.

Potter revises his book with each new plot twist, from perfidious Celts (when Kewley catches him out) through degenerate overbred Normans (Wilson and his increasingly ludicrous quest) to the baffling, impenetrable ways of the Aborigine -- is it 'some peculiar primitive instinct' that makes Peevay 'steal' Potter's treasured Aborigine skeleton? Like all of the characters to some extent, Potter's a caricature: one gets the feeling that the author is gently mocking everybody, even as he brings out their individual tragedies with a sure hand.

Given the wealth of voices (as well as the five protagonists, there are many subsidiary voices getting a word in edgeways: Jack Harp, Peevay's father; Mrs Gerald Denton, Wife of the Governor of Tasmania; Julius Crane, a prison inspector ...) it's admirable that Kneale ties up all the threads of his tale with dramatic justice.

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