Okay, so this is sort of cheating, and it is also an experiment. I'm too busy to write any but light-hearted / short / batty / photographic blog posts at the moment so here instead, for those who follow these things more closely than I am currently doing, is the review I wrote last September for the SMH of New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones's novel Mister Pip, shortlisted (trust the Poms at the Times to describe New Zealand as "nowhere", but the article itself is good) for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. I don't even know whether stuff written for the MSM is likely to work as a blog post or not. Guess I'm about to find out. Ahem:
What, you might well ask, can the 1861 London publication of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations possibly have to do with Papua New Guinea’s blockade of Bougainville in the early 1990s? What chance hinge connects these two wildly disparate things, with so much time and distance between them?
New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ hypnotic novel is set on the island of Bougainville after the blockade has been imposed and all the doctors and teachers have left the islanders to fend for themselves. There is only one white man left: Mr Watts is known to the children as Pop Eye and is married to the mad and mysterious Mrs Watts, a native of the island, whom he met in New Zealand and has followed home.
The schoolchildren have been left with no teacher and Mr Watts is asked to step in. He agrees, but he has only one book from which to teach: an old copy of Great Expectations.
The story is told by Matilda, one of the children, who almost immediately becomes enchanted with Dickens’ Pip; she writes his name in the sand and decorates it with shells. Neither Matilda nor the reader can possibly foresee the appalling consequences this will have.
This novel about another novel is a skilful allegory of colonisation, using Great Expectations in some of the same ways as Jean Rhys used Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea. Peter Carey’s 1997 novel Jack Maggs is another useful point of comparison, taking as it did the character of Magwitch the convict from Great Expectations as its central idea.
For the people of the island, as represented by the young narrator Matilda, there is little to choose between the oppressive army of ‘redskins’ and the rebel ‘rambos’. They all look alike to the children: mad and dangerous enemies whose motivations cannot be fathomed and whose actions cannot be foreseen. Matilda narrates throughout with a kind of deadpan matter-of-factness that, as the book progresses, comes to look more and more like a symptom of shock.
Shortly after Mr Watts has finished reading the book to the entranced children, it goes missing. He sets them the exercise of trying to re-create it: each time one of them remembers a moment, a scene or a phrase from the novel, he writes it down in an exercise book he has been miraculously able to save from the wreckage of his own and everyone else’s possessions. This echoes yet another widely-read 20th century novel – no doubt deliberately, since this is very much a novel about other novels – in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which features a group of characters who in an era of book-burning have committed one book each to memory.
As Jones has pointed out himself, this act of willed, group recollection is an image of the colonial experience, where the old-world culture is desperately but imperfectly remembered. It also gives the reader an idea of what that experience of extreme isolation and danger might be like. ‘I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every fragment I managed to retrieve,’ says Matilda. ‘Otherwise, I have no sense of time passing in the normal way. Along with medicines and our freedom, the blockade stole time from us.’
Jones has done something very difficult with this novel: he has taken a recent and brutal piece of contemporary history and has told a story that not only reveals these events to the wider world but also shows what they mean in the larger and more abstract field of human behaviour. A brutal and senseless episode – the atrocities committed during the Bougainville blockade have been compared with events in Rwanda -- becomes something from which a lesson may be learned.
It’s also a novel about imagination and about the power and value of art as a potentially redemptive force in a nightmare situation. Pip gives Matilda a focus for an increasingly precarious and fragile life: ‘I had come to know this Pip as if he were real and I could feel his breath on my cheek. I had learned to enter the soul of another.’ It’s not really a plot spoiler to reveal that eventually Matilda makes it out of there alive, for, if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be around to tell the tale. And Dickens eventually gives her a way to emulate Pip and ‘better herself’ in life.
For so brutal a reminder of atrocities so close to home, this is still an oddly satisfying book that goes on resonating long after you get to the end. It helps to read up on the history of the Bougainville blockade, though that’s not a happy experience for any Australian with a conscience. And it will almost certainly lead you back to read Great Expectations again – or perhaps for the first time.