Island in the sunby Listener Archive
Dickens comes to Bougainville in Lloyd Jones's brilliant new novel, Mister Pip.
How do you convey in story the power and formative influence of literature?
There are right ways and there are wrong ways. From this novel's set-up and its blurb, I feared Lloyd Jones might have chosen one of the wrong ways.
Mister Pip's blurb says that the novel is "a love song to the power of the imagination and of storytelling. It shows how books can change lives."
Here's the set-up.
In Bougainville in the civil war in the early 1990s, regular schooling for village children is disrupted. Elderly eccentric Mr Watts, the last white man in the area, agrees to become the teacher. His classes consist of reading Dickens's Great Expectations to the kids. Government troops (known contemptuously as "redskins") and the local boys who have become armed rebels (known as "rambos") pass through the village, sometimes with scary or horrible results. Still Mr Watts reads. And, in spite of everything, the children are touched and begin to see new imaginative poss-ibilities in their lives. They relate to the orphaned status of Dickens's Pip and to the theme of being uprooted from home. They begin to see characters such as Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham and Mr Jaggers in terms of their own culture.
Presented thus, this must sound as glib and simplistic a fable as the blurb threatens. Something like those bits of Steven Spielberg's movie version of The Color Purple where a black kid gets intellectual nourishment from Oliver Twist.
By this stage, shouldn't we be at least a little wary of benign white men bringing enlightenment to young indigenes? Doesn't it smack of intellectual imperialism?
The answer to both questions is that Lloyd Jones is many steps ahead of us.
Far from being simplistic, his tale canvasses a whole range of problems under its general endorsement of the imaginative power of literature.
At different times, the possibilities are raised that even great literature can be mere escapism, or can encourage a deformed view of reality, or can even be downright dangerous when it is taken literally. (Soldiers get angry and vengeful when they can't find this Mister Pip the children are talking about.)
As for that troublesome cultural imperi-alism, the novel confronts it head-on. Postcolonialism and the culture of migrant workers lured off to Australia lurk in the general background.
The atheist white man Mr Watts spars verbally with one local God-fearing mother. He usually gets the better of their exchanges, which come across as a kind of secular missionary-ism to the unenlightened. Whereupon the plot reaches an awful climax (the sort reviewers are shot for revealing) and we are forced to reassess the judgments we made about these two characters. Indigenous values are more robust and meaningful than the sparring at first suggests, and indigenous people are not passive receptors of imposed cultures, no matter how beguiling western literature may be.
Jones's trickiest gamble is his simplest. Like Great Expectations, the novel is narrated in the first person by an adult looking back across a lifetime - or, at any rate, somebody in her mid-twenties looking back to events that began when she was 14.
Matilda is the daughter of Mr Watts's sparring partner. So how dare a white male novelist adopt the mask of a black female narrator? This could be the cue for the type of PC brouhaha that long ago accompanied William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner.
Once again, though, Jones knows exactly what he's about.
The mask sometimes slips. But with its deadpan reporting of civil war atrocities, its quizzing of the outside world and its rueful admission that all cultural influences have their limits, Matilda's voice is the perfect vehicle for Jones's key themes. This is a brilliant narrative performance, and not half as simple as it at first appears.
As for the civilised fiction of Charles Dickens, it is not the only formative fiction that reaches poor, non-European nations. Remember, the rebel soldiers are called "rambos". If imaginations are to be formed by Pip or by Rambo, Pip is obviously the preferable alternative.