Notes from underground
ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ για το θέμα, την τριλογία του Φίλιπ Πούλμαν, «His Dark Materials» (Τα Σκοτεινά Του Υλικά)One of the things I noted when reading Philip Pullman’s His dark materials was that though he accused C.S. Lewis of being preachy, he was in fact far more preachy himself, especially in the third book of the series, The amber spyglass.
When I mentioned this in discussion forums, several people said that that was just my Christian prejudice. So I was interested to find a review from someone more sympathetic to Pullman’s worldview saying the same thing. Reason Magazine – A Secular Fantasy
While Pullman has said that he is interested in “telling a story, not preaching a sermon,” he slides more and more frequently into preaching as the story goes on. Some of his favorite ideas—for instance, that the human body with its senses is far superior to the fleshless spirit of the angels, or that the best afterlife is to become one with nature—are stated again and again and again and again. The idea that the transition from childhood innocence to adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, is illustrated by a heavy-handed plot twist in which Lyra and Will’s sexual awakening proves to be the key to the world’s salvation. When ideology and literature collide, literature suffers. The Amber Spyglass is not quite on a par with the first two novels: Its new characters and worlds are generally less interesting, far too much space is given to sententious musings about the meaning of life in a post-God world, and eventually you start to feel that Pullman is trying to cram too many messages into his narrative, even if that means unnecessarily dragging it out.
I recently reread the books, after seeing the film The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book of the trilogy, Northern Lights. I enjoyed it more on the second reading, but the preachiness was still there. So too was what seemed to me the biggest weakness in the whole plot — that Pullman, after making clear that he rejects the ideas of Christian asceticism, has his protagonists end up adopting something very similar. They end up like Abelard and Heloise, or Leon Bloy and his love.
On the notion that adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, however, it seems to me that Pullman’s message is ambiguous. I recently read Lisa Chaney’s biography of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Barrie had a horror of children growing up, yet recognised that Peter Pan was somehow inhuman, because he was deprived of so much of human experience. But in His dark materials there is something similar. Pullman’s protagonists go on to live rather dull adult lives, forever separated from each other, and can look back on their childhood as a time of joy, excitement, adventure and love. Growing up doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it.
The Concert and La Belle Sauvage
At first sight the two books I discuss here seem to have little in common, so perhaps it is mere coincidence that I happened to read them at about the same time that made me see several similarities between them. So here are my separate reviews, followed by some thoughts about them together.
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I quite enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials, though the third one, The Amber Spyglass was disappointing (my review here: Evangelising atheism: Philip Pullman | Notes from underground).
Then I found a shop with dozens of copies of the prequel, La Belle Sauvage going cheap — they’d clearly over-ordered in the expectation of a rush of demand, like the Harry Potter books, but it didn’t turn out like that. And if the demand was disappointing, so, to some extent, was the book.
The protagonist is eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, who loves to spend his free time paddling his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. He often paddles across the river to a convent of Calvinist nuns (don’t ask), who are given a rather mysterious baby, Lyra Belaqua, the later protagonist of His Dark Materials to look after. But others have an interest in this baby, and and clearly do not wish her well.
After prolonged heavy rains the river floods, and Malcolm, aided by fifteen-year-old Alice, the kitchen girl from his parents’ inn, rescues Lyra from the flood, and, swept away by the swollen river, decides to take her to her father’s house in Chelsea. The six of them (three children and their daemons) have various adventures, with dangers and narrow escapes, en route to London.
It’s not a bad story, quite exciting in parts, but after His Dark Materials it falls a bit flat. Pullman’s world-building seems to slip in a number of places. In His Dark Materials one of the attractive things is the different alternative worlds he creates, with greater or lesser divergences from our world. But in La Belle Sauvage he seems to have grown impatient with it, and the history and geography that Malcolm studies at school seem to be the history and geography of our world rather than of Lyra’s world in Northern Lights.
The differences in language are maintained in a perfunctory way, but without consistent explanation. There is an anbaric drill, but no anbaric torches — everyone uses lanterns. Then suddenly an anbaric torch appears, and one wonders why they didn’t use them earlier.
As in Lyra’s world they use “philosophical instruments”, but in Malcolm’s world they are used to achieve “scientific management of resources”. which pricks the bubble of illusion. We are back in Will’s (or our own) Oxford, only without telephones and with people having daemons.
Lyra’s Oxford in His Dark Materials seems to have separated from ours at about the time of the Renaissance and developed in a different way. Malcolm’s Oxford seems less consistent. The sinister church organisations seem Cromwellian, but most of the rest seems modern, with perhaps a few significant differences. The daemons of people are often non-European — lemurs, bushbabies and the like, but their ancestors never are, except perhaps in the case of the gyptians. An odd discrepancy, that.
The Concert by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve read a couple of Ismail Kadare’s books before — see Chronicle in stone — book review | Khanya — but the others were set in the time before Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, who famously made it, for 27 years, the world’s only truly atheist county.
Albania was almost unique among communist countries in becoming increasingly isolated from the world, including other communist countries. It broke first from the USSR, but for a while maintained friendship with China, but eventually even that friendship dissolved, and during the 1970s Albania’s ties with China loosened and Hoxha came to regard the Chinese, like the Soviets, as “revisionists”.
This novel is set in that period, and shows the effects of the changing relationship with China on families that were mostly fairly close to the centres of power in Albania. Relations between the two countries cooled when Albania crtiticised the Chinese decision to invite US President Nixon to visit China in 1972, and by the time of Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 the break was almost complete. And now, 40 years later, we see China treating African countries in the same way as it treated Albania in the 1970s.
… everyone talked of how work had slowed down on many big construction sites, especially those building hydro-electric plants in the north. This was because of hold-ups in supplies of equipment from China. Freighters now took and unconscionably long time to reach their destination, and when they did arrive they might be carrying the wrong cargo. On two occasions ships had turned back without even entering Durres harbour. All this was said to be part of China’s famous “turn of the screw”. Cafes in Tirana were full of stories about this tactic: no one realized that one day the whole country would be its victim.
The “concert” of the title took place towards the end of this period, where the audience was far more important than the performers, and Albania, like the rest of the world, was watching to see who was invited and who was not, who turned up and who did not.
At the centre of the story is Silva Dibra, a civil servant like her husband Gjergj (whose job takes him on visits to China), their schoolgirl daughter Brikena, Silva’s brother Arian, an officer in a tank regiment who was expelled from the Party for disobeying an order, and her dead sister Ana. It also features several of her work colleagues and friends and associates of Ana. One of her sister’s associates was a writer, who also visited China, The life and work of Albanian writers and artists was restricted. As Kadare puts it:
…people reconciled themselves to the idea that it was going to be a dry autumn. Meanwhile all the other seasonal changes took place as usual: the leaves turned colour, the temperature dropped, the birds migrated. As usual too, painters flocked to headquarters of the Writers’ and Artists’ Union to get their annual permits to concentrate on autumnal themes.