Jim Crace: Continent
Ever since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came out, Jim Crace’s tenth novel, The Pesthouse, itself dealing with a future America, has had less attention. But, Picador have recently released his back catalogue in new paperback editions and, since I’d never read him before, I thought it better to start way back at the start of his literary career rather than cut in so late. So it was that I came to Continent (1986), winner of the Whitbread First Novel Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Personally, I’m not sure that this is a novel, being a series of short stories, seven in total. But if David Mitchell is getting away with it today, there has to be a precedent. And Continent may just be it. The short stories are all told outwith any particular over-arching storyline, the only constant thread being the continent of the title: a seventh, somewhere in our world, with its own customs, languages, and history; its own flora and fauna; a selection of animals, exotic and not so.
This other land, however, is in no way hermetic and the influences of the western world are infringing upon it. In the opening story, Talking Skull, Crace sets out the stall that characterises the book, introducing the dual themes of trade and superstition. Here a man returns from a western education eager to impart his new found capitalist ways, only to learn that he can exploit superstition in order to make his money, as regards bogus freemartin milk, which some believe aids fertility:
“You and science would tell me that coffee doesn’t sober, doesn’t relax, doesn’t revive, doesn’t welcome, that it shortens my life, costs a fortune, disrupts the economy of Brazil, and if left to long in the pot will corrode the silver. But try to stop me drinking it! I don’t care for the dictatorship of science. Nor do your neighbours. Freedom of choice. Deceive yourself at will, that’s the motto of the nation. Harness superstition. Turn it to your advantage. Milk it dry!”
It’s a multi-layered story, taking in both the effect of modernisation upon tradition and the differences between rural and urban life along the way, all the time mixing myth with the hard-hitting reality of our world. In fact, this is the pattern for all seven stories, each varied in content, holding a surreal mirror up to our world and putting words to the reflection, whether it be looking at the effects of introducing new customs to a culture (Cross-country) or the repercussions of supply and demand (Sins and Virtues).
While the stories for the most part are subtle in their underlying ideas, Electricity hits you with all the subtlety of…well, an electric shock. Unashamedly blatant story it accounts a time when a town, after much petitioning of office by someone called Awni, is connected to the grid, the villagers amazed at this new magic line the streets to see the “mangoes of light”. Regarding this, the local teacher has a grim prediction:
‘Soon’, he says, ‘thanks to Awni’s obsequious petitions, this town, with its oil lamps, its hand pumps, its long nights, its stillness, will be a powered cauldren of heat and light and sound. It will spin with electricity. And it will disappear.’
That the town could become like any other brings the question of identity to communities and what they stand to lose from ongoing commercialisation. And the notion of spinning with electricity foreshadows the eventual disaster in which the story culminates, once again landing on a bed of superstition.
There were times in reading Continent that I found Crace’s voice too similar from one story to the next, especially on those employing the first person. While it keeps the tone of the book consistent I couldn’t help feel that individual voices needed to be heard. But, that grumble aside, each story is a wonderfully crafted piece of layered fiction that complements the whole, making a landscape that is fantastical and believeable at the same time.
January 17, 2008