Theory with a Wife

Michael Wood

  • Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
    Secker, 118 pp, £8.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 08275 6
  • Parrot’s Perch by Michel Rio, translated by Leigh Hafrey
    Dent, 88 pp, £7.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 460 04669 1
  • Light Years by Maggie Gee
    Faber, 350 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13604 4

At the beginning of Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities a well-dressed couple arrives at the scene of an accident on a busy street in Vienna. The lady is uncomfortable, ‘had a disagreeable sensation in the pit of her stomach, which she felt entitled to take for compassion’. The man, after a pause, says: ‘These heavy lorries they use here have too long a braking-distance.’ The lady is much relieved. ‘Though she had doubtless heard the expression many times before, she did not know what a braking-distance was, nor had she any wish to know; it was sufficient for her that by this means the horrible happening could be fitted into some kind of pattern, so becoming a technical problem that no longer directly concerned her.’

A good deal of modern fiction, with its ambitions and anxieties of interpretation, is implicit in this passage. What does the lady feel, if it is not compassion? What is the consoling force of the possibly quite irrelevant technical information? Where does the hint of comedy come from, why are we laughing? The braking-distance of the lorry is a myth; based on fact, as most modern myths are, but all the same an invocation of orderly gods and an explicable, properly-run universe. Theology is everywhere, the sceptical Valéry said, and this may be a tiny proof. The perception is disturbing to rational, fact-hungry humans, and it haunts the books under review.

A fact is what won’t go away, what we cannot not know, as Henry James remarked of the real. Yet when we bring one closer, stare at it, test our loyalty to it, it begins to shimmer with complication. Without becoming less factual, it floats off into myth. Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar looks at the sky, his lawn, the sea, starlings, tortoises, Roman rooftops, a girl, giraffes and much else. He wants only to observe, to learn a modest lesson from creatures and things. But he can’t. There is too much to see in them, for a start. When he tries to describe some rare cheeses thoroughly to himself, the queue in the shop moves him along, bumps him back into ordinariness and the advertised cheeses he knows. And there is too much of himself and his culture in the world he watches anyway: the universe is littered with the signs of our needs, with mythologies. The protagonist in Parrot’s Perch collects facts about Christian martyrs with a view to undoing our fascination with pain. But doesn’t the fascination remain in the collection itself, isn’t the gathering ‘stained with a secret complicity’? The characters in Maggie Gee’s Light Years keep going to London Zoo as a refuge from human mess or human coldness. But the animals are too tame and nearly human themselves – too far from the wild to be anything other than furry or sliding myths. One of the characters (and the author) hoards information about the galaxy and the life of the earth, but instead of underlining human insignificance it becomes a metaphor for both loneliness and pattern.

Perhaps the best focus for all this is the picture of Mr Palomar in Mexico, visiting a pre-Hispanic ruin. His friend is ‘an impassioned and eloquent expert’, full of stories about Quetzalcoatl, the god-king who takes the form of a plumed serpent; about wonderful coyotes and jaguars. ‘Mr Palomar’s friend pauses at each stone, transforms it into a cosmic tale, an allegory, a moral reflection.’ At the same time a group of schoolboys is being taken round the ruins. At each stone or pyramid or statue, the teacher provides copious factual details – date, civilisation, building material – and adds: ‘We don’t know what it means.’ At last Mr Palomar’s friend can stand it no longer. The teacher shows the boys a beautiful wall of serpents. ‘This is the wall of serpents. Each serpent has a skull in its mouth. We don’t know what they mean.’ Mr Palomar’s friend says: ‘Yes, we do! It’s the continuity of life and death; the serpents are life, the skulls are death.’ Mr Palomar thinks his friend’s interpretation still needs an interpretation (‘What did death, life, continuity, passage mean for the ancient Toltecs?’) and also knows that ‘not to interpret is impossible.’ Impossible for us, that is. Once the school group is round the corner, the teacher says: ‘No es verdad, it is not true, what the señor said. We don’t know what they mean.’

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