Monday, February 10, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE BRIGHT SIDE OF MY CONDITION” by Charlotte Randall (Penguin, $NZ30)
Charlotte Randall likes to have her novels narrated in the first-person. Sometimes, the style doesn’t work – or at least not for me. When I reviewed her The Crocus Hour (New Zealand Books, Spring 2008), I admitted that I found the narrator insubstantial and a bit of a distraction from the more interesting stuff that was going on in that novel. On the other hand, when Randall creates interesting and substantial narrators, the first-person technique works brilliantly. When I reviewed Randall’s Hokitika Town (Metro, April 2011), I found its narrator “Halfie” to be one of its delights, with his lively chatter in a half English-half Maori lingo of the novelist’s devising. I also praised the novelist’s courage for daring to create such a character in an age when it is deemed indelicate to presume to speak on behalf of another ethnicity. Hokitika Town, with its vivid sense of the chaotic nature of a raw, pioneering township, is one of the best recent New Zealand historical novels.
In The Bright Side of My Condition, Randall once again has first-person narration, but this time from a character every bit as interesting as “Halfie” and then some. Bloodworth is an English convict at odds with human society and in the end questioning the nature of Nature itself
The novel is based on a true story. In about 1820, four convicts, managed to escape from the British penal colony on Norfolk Island by stowing away on a sealing ship. When the captain discovered them, he offered them the choice of being returned to the penal colony or being set ashore on an uninhabited island, where they could work for him by clubbing seals and collecting their skins. The convicts chose to be set ashore, so the captain dumped them on cold, uninhabited Snares Island, about 200 kilometres south of the South Island. He promised to pick them up within a year. Instead, the four men were left on the island for over ten years.
Bypassing cheerful kiddie fantasies (The Coral Island, The Swiss Family Robinson etc.), any novel which strands a handful of human beings on a desert island immediately makes us think of either Robinson Crusoe (= solitary human endurance by ingenuity and faith in providence) or Lord of the Flies (= flawed human nature, and human evil, revealed when the restraints of civilization are removed). The title The Bright Side of My Condition comes from Robinson Crusoe, a sentence from which is quoted as the novel’s epigraph:
“I learn’d to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoy’d rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts that I cannot express them.”
I can only assume that this upbeat epigraph is quoted ironically, for the tone of The Bright Side of My Condition is more dark than bright.
Once ashore, the four convicts (known exclusively by the nicknames they have acquired) do have to struggle with nature in order to survive. But the quest for food, warmth and shelter, while duly accounted for, is less central to the novel’s purpose than the differences between the men themselves. Slangam is the tough one who appoints himself boss, bullies the others and in effect becomes the island’s dictator - but he does know about the practical necessities of survival. Gargantua (also known as Fatty and Flonker) is the educated one, almost a gentleman, who has travelled and knows about Art and Literature, feels superior to the others, and isn’t all that keen on physical labour. Toper is an Irishman who longs for liquor. He is a good and ingenious cook with a sarcastic wit, but his strong religious beliefs mean he is always crossing himself or invoking God, much to the taunting and teasing of Slangam and Gargantua. Then there’s the narrator, Bloodworth.
I do not believe this novel is intended as an allegory, but the configuration of these characters does push it in the direction of fable. For as Bloodworth interprets the others to us, he comes to see them as embodying Law and the State (Slangam); Religion (Toper); and Art and Learning (Gargantua). In other words, although they are outcasts, in his three fellow castaways, Bloodworth sees being replicated on this island the values of the “civilised” states from which they are isolated. Late in the novel he refers to the other three as “Mr Sweat, Mr Pray and Mr Know-it-all” (p.227), and he constantly puzzles over why they have to bring to the island all that is wrong with the world at large, rather than taking the opportunity to create a more equitable society. When he is imprisoned by the others at one stage, and they begin to make “laws”, he reflects:
“But we do finish with a list of crimes matched to a list of punishments, nearly all about food and work and most a fucken nonsense. The nonsense is that free on our island we fashion ourselves a little replica of what we come from, a sad little copy of the big world that send us all to Norfolk.” (p.149)
Unfortunately, the flaws in human nature (or original sin) are portable, and things are going to end in tears. In this thematic respect at least, The Bright Side of My Condition has something in common with both The Lord of the Flies and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, even if the specifics of its tale are quite different.
For Bloodworth, the very sound of his companions’ voices becomes irritating:
“I don’t answer. What cud I say? I don’t like to listen to yer’s more’n I have to. I don’t like the same old topics going round and round, and round again jes fer luck, and round again jes because yer made a rut of your thinking, and around a few more times because yer self is in a prison of your own making. Yer all jes like them speechifiers in The Gazetteer that band on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about the same old topics and call it news.” (p.177)
The novel often captures that fear of the unknown that a handful of people will experience in a totally unknown country, especially when their knowledge of the natural world is mixed with:
“Everyone go quiet and probably fall to thinking about his great fear. Is the noise of the hakawai really a screech owl or a moon snake or a night albatross or lava boiling under your feet? That’s the great trouble with fears and darkness, no daytime sense wipe out night-time’s nonsense, it grow and swirl and distort itself, it come out in a shape it dint go in at.” (p.76)
As in an epic, Randall begins her tale in medias res. Characters’ back-stories are only gradually revealed as the men fill in time by talking – Toper with his tales of “Slapsauce”, the French cook and con-man for whose pilfering he was transported; Slangam with his account of how he got to be imprisoned; Gangantua with his smuggling of art works from Persia; Bloodworth’s complex tale of love, insanity and transportation for stealing to feed his bastard child. We are eighty pages in before we learn in detail about their escape from Norfolk Island. Meanwhile the winds whistle up direct from the Antarctic (called “Incognita” by Bloodworth), there’s the toil of finding firewood and clubbing seals and making drying frames for their skins. And there’s the stink of the seals’ blood-and-guts and excrement on the beaches, and the screech and racket of the huge whiskered penguin colony on the other side of the island.
Central to the novel’s impact, however, is that first-person narration, bringing with it (as first-person narration always does these days) all those questions about the reliability of the narrator. For example, if I object that the Irishman Toper is almost a caricature of a “dumb Mick”, I have to remember that it is an uneducated and sometimes superstitious Englishman of nearly two centuries ago who is talking and expressing his prejudices. As in Hokitika Town, Charlotte Randall gives her narrator a patois more-or-less of her own devising. Bloodworth’s language is sometimes slangy, sometimes poetic, sometimes steeped in Biblical cadences, and often grammatically deficient but (with the odd lapse) credible as a language both ours and not ours, taking into account time and place and Bloodworth’s lack of education. But in this novel (unlike the earlier one) there are also odd moments where other characters comment on the narrator’s interior monologue as if they can hear his thoughts – or as if, in this lonely place, he is actually speaking his thoughts aloud.
Randall’s skill is found in the way Bloodworth’s voice changes in the course of the narrative. At first he seems placid in temperament, as when he runs out of tobacco and resigns himself to his loss, unlike another member of the group:
“Even if I were eking out the tobacco, it’s all long gone. Like Toper who look at the berries to make gin from, I examine the blasted leafs and wonder if any can turn into a passable smoke. But I’m a lazy man and I know it. Toper drive himself mad trying to make his pleasure. I jes give mine up. I give up the smoking for the sitting.” (p.34)
He is ready to surrender any hope of rescue and see their life as a brief interlude before death, hardly different from the one they lived in wider society:
“Sometimes, though, when a cold wind blow from the land of ice and we’re all at each other’s throats, it seem to me such a situation aint much different from the life I used to live and wud go back to if the ship ever come. Just keeping alive and waiting to die, that’s what it boil down to, don’t it, if yer take off all the false hope, the hope of all them excitements and pleasures that hover and vanish like ghost ships.” (p.38)
Later, however, like a Herbert Spencer avant la lettre, Bloodworth’s observations on the mating and fighting and dying of seals and penguins and albatrosses, and his own participation in clubbing seals, make him see life as competition plus violence, or “survival of the fittest”. The tone is less accommodating. And thoughts on predation make him question God’s purposes in ways quite contrary to Robinson Crusoe’s reliance on providence.
It would be unfair to reveal how a newly-published novel ends, but I can say that the last forty pages of The Bright Side of My Condition give the novel’s title an even more ironical meaning. They also see Charlotte Randall facing, very ingeniously, the problem of having a first-person narrator record things he could not possibly have witnessed.
If Hokitika Town gave us the chaos and disorder of a pioneering New Zealand settlement, The Bright Side of My Condition gives us the earlier paradox of European settlement in the first place – the imposition of Europe and all its values on a wild landscape. Again, Charlotte Randall has thought her way into an essential aspect of New Zealand identity.
Pedantic footnote: This novel is very specifically set in the very early 19th century. At one point, a character offers a toast to the Prince Regent and there are a number of references to Coleridge’s newly-published Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So when a character says “the business grow like topsy” (p.45), my pedantic anachronism-detector gets annoyed. The phrase “grow like topsy” surely wouldn’t have existed until after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852. However, Charlotte Randall makes so few such slips that it’s hardly worth my mentioning, is it?