Saturday, 8 September 2007

On the Origins of Prejudice.

Missing Links or Chains?

One of the beauties of being English is that, no matter how awful some of your ancestors have been to other "peoples", it is almost certain that they were worse to other ancestors of your own.

I am reminded of Moira Stuart - a British television News Reader and Presenter - in search of her family: Having gone through the harrowing experience of seeing the Caribbean slave experience she was only a couple of generations removed from, she came to the realisation that her blood-line also contained the slave owners - through rape no doubt. Not only that, but almost everyone in the Caribbean had the same mix, in varying degrees, in their ancestry.

It is not as simple as many would like to believe – the ‘they’ of persecutors is the ‘us’ of victims combined in our genes.

If this is sounding strong stuff, it is an indication of the power of this novel to make you pause and think.

We are in Tasmania, once Van Deiman’s Land, in search of Paradise; amongst the prisoners in the British run proto-concentration camps; with the aborigines facing extinction at the hands of ‘the British’; and on a boat of ‘unfortunate’ Manx smugglers constantly running from customs officers. The scope is both very tight on two ‘small’ islands off the coast of major parts of the Great British Empire, and world spanning in the vast expanses of the British Ruled Waves between.

I wouldn’t know the factual accuracy of everything in the novel, but it is certainly one of those fictions that contain a truth about both the good and the bad in human nature.

It is a book of contrasts, where you cannot remove one ‘side’ without making the other invisible. The Reverend Wilson, in a reaction to the new study of Geology’s findings about the age of the earth is in search of a physical, only 5,000 year old Paradise; on the same trip is Dr Potter, secretive scientific in the new sense, and looking for evidence of the inheritable superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. Both wish to become famous as a result of the publications they will base on their journey across the world.

Put against this high energy double-extreme is the third member of the expedition, Timothy Renshaw; a disappointment to his family and on the boat officially as botanist, but really in search for a meaning to his life - or so his family hope: A more laid-back, late adolescent you could not wish for.

I can’t help being reminded of the voyage of the Beagle, of Darwin and Fitzroy. But it is only a reminder – Matthew Kneale has resisted the temptation to base his characterisation on them but seems to have taken the issues which arise from that real, paradigm-shattering voyage and personified them.

That this works so well is mainly due to the stunning ‘voice’ he gives to each of his characters.

The Manx captain and crew don’t only have a superficial sprinkling of Manx words, they seem to think Manx – and a whole culture linked and contrasting with the dominant English emerges in those parts told by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley (and Kneale should have won the Booker Prize on the strength of that name alone!).

The tour-de-force though is Peevay.

With a Tasmanian mother abducted to be a sex-slave by an escaped convict father, Peevay journeys through the book searching for love and identity. The only certainty he has is his ability to endure. He tells his story in a language which stretches English to its limits. It isn’t the usual ‘poetic’ limit, or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ limit; it is a twisted grammar and not-quite-right-vocabulary of a none-native speaker struggling to express complex thoughts and emotions limit; it is a way of thinking about the world in another culture limit; it’s a limit which pulls you screaming and kicking into a strange world and consciousness of ‘other’ experience.

It is a language that makes you regret that part of your ancestry which was responsible for the Genocide on Van Deiman’s Land.

I don’t think I give too much away if I say Peevay does achieve a sort of resolution, nor if I say there is an ending which leaves one hopeful. This is a book which you won’t forget in a long time, and which treats the 19th century as what it was – the foundation of much of what we think and do at the start of the 21st Century.

Well worth reading!

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