Bite It above the Eyes

Susan Eilenberg

  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
    Murray, 223 pp, £12.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7195 6456 7

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them . . . my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

A book about the delights and healing effects of reading, recalling the novels about precocious readers and intellectual explorers that many of us grew up with, South Pacific cousin to Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and innumerable similar childhood favourites: this is the last place one would expect to encounter a jealous quarrel about the nature of referentiality.

On the actual island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, blockaded during a verifiable civil war in the historically real early 1990s (when, as our protagonist tells it, ‘Francis Ona and his rebels declared war on the copper mine and the company, which in some way that I didn’t understand at the time, brought the redskin soldiers from Port Moresby to our island’), a character named Mr Watts (though known in mockery of his eccentricities as ‘Pop Eye’) begins to read Great Expectations (or something that passes for Great Expectations) aloud. His audience consists of the black children of the island, whose schoolmasters, together with the rest of the white population, have fled. The children’s parents hope that Pop Eye’s version of school might distract the children from the rumours of atrocities committed by the redskin soldiers (‘redskin’ because the ‘soldiers looked like people leached up out of the red earth’) against the rebels and any community they suspect of rebel sympathies. They want distraction for their children; they are not sure they want cultural disloyalty for them or escape, possibilities which Great Expectations both narrates and embodies. The children nonetheless find themselves drawn to the story, discover that they can ‘slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own, even when that skin is white and belongs to a boy alive in Dickens’s England’, and begin to think of Pip as of a friend as real or realler than their parents or uncles or aunts. One of the mothers finds this intolerable. She attacks the Victorian story and its reader for undermining what she understands to be the allegiance her child owes her. The child herself survives the catastrophe that follows to record here her witness and that of her mother.

The mother is Dolores Laimo, who ‘when she was thinking . . . tended to look angry, as if the act of thinking was potentially ruinous, even ending in her humiliation’. Dolores’s anger, always quick, has been strong since her husband left her to work in Australia two years before. ‘I didn’t know if I was looking at a bad man or a man who loved me,’ she says of him. In her eyes all other values are subordinate to loyalty; her moral categories are in effect categories of allegiance and control. The military blockade is the official reason her husband has never returned, but weariness with his wife’s emotional violence may be the reason behind the official one.

Thirteen-year-old Matilda, Dolores’s daughter, has her mother’s intelligence without her frightening aggressiveness. Quick and sympathetic, she is the one who notes that it is ‘those dogs and chickens that had names’ that take refuge with their owners in the jungle when the redskins’ helicopters first appear ‘like giant dragonflies’ hovering over the village. From the beginning she thinks of herself as an orphan and so feels an instant identification with Pip. The novel opens a whole new world for her, its characters ‘more part of my life than my dead relatives, even the people around me’. She practises interpreting the people around her as if they were the characters she has come to know, reading her mother as Mrs Joe at first, and then Estella, and at last as Joe Gargery or even Magwitch. But by the time she has revised her understanding of her mother she has learned that she is not the only Pip on the island and that some who appear to be Pips may turn out to be Jaggerses or Joes as well. She writes Pip’s name in the sand and decorates it with heart seeds.

Matilda’s unorthodox teacher and her mother’s apparent foe, Mr Watts, is the only white man left on the island. He remains for the sake of his wife, Grace, huge, black, ‘mad as a goose’ and shunned by her friends. Wearing a shabby white linen suit and an inexplicable clown’s nose, he tows her about the island on a trolley. Like Matilda, he sees himself as Pip, an emigrant (to use his term) from one culture to another, and surely for the same reason must see himself as Magwitch too. He tells the children the Dickens novel is about free personal reinvention, and he seems to mean it, though it is hard not to wonder whether the novel’s pervasive sense of obsessive connection and guilty betrayal is not more important here. But perhaps Mr Watts is not meant to be a particularly good reader. (It is equally possible that Jones doesn’t especially care whether he is a good reader, or even whether Great Expectations is the novel best suited to his aims. If he were really intent on celebrating personal reinvention, wouldn’t Our Mutual Friend have better served his purpose?) Though his mystery withstands the pressure of biographical fact, his goodness is established in terms even a child (perhaps especially a child) would recognise. He is generous and willing to dispense with his own dignity. He opens his school by telling the children that he knows some of them call him Pop Eye and that it is OK, he likes it; and he smiles at them. He tells them: ‘I want this to be a place of light’ and ‘I believe, with your parents’ help, we can make a difference to our lives.’ He says also: ‘The truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we’ve got.’ He shows with grand gestures that he shares the islanders’ belief in the necessity of community.

The way the islanders understand community corresponds to no particularly noble ideal. When one man’s son returns, wounded, from fighting alongside the rebel forces, not even his family wants to give him more than a few days’ refuge:

We didn’t like Victoria’s brother being here. We were scared the redskins would discover him, which would make us a rebel village. We knew what happened to rebel villages . . . Two weeks after Gilbert’s father dug the bullets out [of Sam’s leg] he took Sam out to sea in his boat . . . He was gone for two days. We were asleep when he dragged his boat up on the third night. And when I saw him the next day he did not look the same.

We never saw Sam again.

Being a member of the community means not protection but liability to being sacrificed, if necessary, for the community’s good. The named dogs and chickens the islanders take with them to hide in the forest are not thereby saved from becoming dinner, after all.

Still, Mr Watts invites the mothers, fathers, aunts, grandparents, uncles and neighbours to the schoolhouse to ‘share what they knew of the world’ with the children. The things it turns out they know concern the heart seed, which lyrically floats to land from the ocean, takes root and blossoms (‘Why am I telling you this, children? Because its stamen makes a fierce flame and keeps away the mosquitoes’); ‘cooking tips’ (‘To kill an octopus bite it above the eyes . . . To kill a pig, get two fat uncles to place a board across its throat’); the afterlife (‘By the way, fish go to heaven. Don’t believe any other shit you hear’); good manners (best indicated by silence); the wisdom of crabs, a possible object of faith for those who don’t want to believe in anything else; the colour blue.

All this is very nice of Mr Watts, though perhaps not quite nice for the reader. Mr Watts listens with polite attention to the silliest as well as the most lyrical of it. He does not judge or dispute. He endures with perfect courtesy and patience the increasingly outrageous attacks Dolores launches under cover of these sessions. When someone tells the children something too ridiculous to be believed or too insulting to be borne (like Dolores’s boast of having met a witch who ‘once turned a white man into marmalade and spread him on her toast’), the children look at him: ‘Here was something he might care to challenge.’ Sensitive to the possibility of others’ shame – a terrible thing in a community whose members’ identities depend on one another’s acknowledgment of them – he challenges nothing.

But it is not enough. For all his courtesy, for all his openness, his patience in the face of threat, his reluctance to hurt others’ feelings, Mr Watts has by reading Great Expectations to the children threatened the fabric of the community whose communality he so praises. The children believe the book ‘contained a world that was whole and made sense, unlike ours’. Mr Watts believes the two can exist amicably in the same shared space. But in the eyes of the adult islanders the wholeness the children admire in Dickens’s novel is incompatible with the integrity of their island world.

Although Mr Watts never intends any harm (the novel does work this point), Dickens’s fiction and its values present themselves as rivals to the reality and values of Bougainville. In one of her invasions of the schoolhouse, Dolores insists that literature must be useful: ‘Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something. For example, if you know the words you can sing a song to make a fish swim onto your hook.’ The islanders’ own songs make orange trees grow, cure hiccups or sores or boils, or discover truth. When the adults first hear that Mr Watts has promised to introduce their children to Mr Dickens, they send the children to school with lists of things they think a white man from the world beyond the blockade (such as they take ‘Mr Dickens’ to be) should be able to get for them: ‘anti-malaria tablets, aspirin, generator fuel, beer, kerosene, wax candles’. That the words of his novel treat no fevers, light no rooms, catch no fish, have no discernible material purpose at all, remains a puzzle and a provocation.

The islanders understand words, like identities, to be subject to mundane obligations and no more capable of existing in isolation from the real or the material world than a human being is capable of refusing his place in the family and the community. A tale without a purpose or a word without a referent is a dangerous monstrosity and an assault on sense. Words cut loose from people and things will take victims. So the fact that no one claims the ‘Pip’ Matilda has written in the sand, the fact that the name has no material counterpart and refers to no human creature apparent on the island, provokes superstitious rage. Dolores yells, ‘He isn’t a blood relative!’ as she kicks at the sand around and the air above the inscription.

As Mister Pip approaches its crisis it may seem as if there is no place on Bougainville for such a fiction as Great Expectations other than as a child’s refuge from horrors no child should have to face. But this is not quite so. It turns out that Mr Watts’s copy of Dickens’s novel has a glorious and, more to the point, socially acceptable afterlife. Once lost it is mourned and communally re-created in the voices of the children who proudly contribute remembered or misremembered fragments to its reconstruction. Composing the story in their own words, they make Great Expectations their own as it had never been before. The delight they could no longer so keenly feel for the original text they feel now for its reproduction. Nor is there any difficulty moving from one conception of authorship to the other. Mr Watts encourages the children in their work of reconstruction by telling them that their imaginations cannot be taken from them, that they are private and their own: ‘No one in the history of your short lives has used the same voice as you with which to say your name. This is yours. Your special gift that no one can ever take from you.’ (Mr Watts and possibly his author neglect to wonder whether Mr Dickens was blessed with the same inalienable uniqueness of voice and, if so, what happens to it when the children recompose his novel.) And whatever guilt they felt for their and their parents’ and neighbours’ attack on Mr Watts is dispelled as, restoring what Mr Watts tells them had been threatened with oblivion, they regain the sense of their own virtue.

This isn’t the limit of the therapeutic influence of Great Expectations. The children’s restoration creates the model the islanders follow when Grace Watts dies, their communal reconstruction of her girlhood bringing them together and healing the rift with Mr Watts. It provides a procedure, too, for pacifying the rebel soldiers, as the memory of everything the children’s fathers and cousins and grandmothers said in the schoolhouse finds its way into the narrative Mr Watts tells them, Scheherazade-fashion. While it speaks through him, the voice of the community preserves them all alive. To his island audience it seems entirely reasonable that the story of his life should seem to be composed of experiences from theirs.

Lloyd Jones’s novel cannot maintain its happy or perhaps phantasmal reconciliation, though it seems to wish it could. It is not just that heroic passivity before naming and the magnanimous refusal to correct or to judge or to differ or to know fails to avert disaster. It is instead that in the unfolding of the disaster the novel finds its strongest and so, one presumes, its most authentic voice. The disaster begins the way disasters do, indifferent in its terror. The redskin soldiers have arrived in the village, seeking rebels to kill. They take everyone’s name – a sign of co-operation, nothing more, they say. But there is a name that seems to have no owner. Whose name is it, the officer in charge demands to know, that they have seen written in the sand on the beach? Who is Pip? A foolish child gives a foolish answer: ‘Pip belongs to Mr Dickens,’ he says, and when asked who Mr Dickens is, points to the schoolhouse. To tell the officer that the foolish child has made a mistake would be to shame the child, so Mr Watts says, yes, he is Mr Dickens, but Pip is a fictional character in the novel Great Expectations. Then he realises that the officer has never heard of Great Expectations; he will not humiliate himself by being seen to look ignorant or uncertain. He must be made to understand without being seen to require an explanation. Mr Watts’s copy of the book must be fetched and shown. But because Dolores has just then stolen it, it cannot be fetched, which means that Pip himself must be produced, or else.

The ‘or else’, which could have been averted quite simply at the outset by Dolores’s confession of what she has done, grows systematically, almost Hamlet-like, in violence and in the complexity of its betrayals. The devilish ethical engine that catches Mr Watts, Dolores and Matilda emerges from its unrecognisable origin with a concentrated weight and subtlety found nowhere else in the book. The amusing bits about funny fat uncles and roosters chasing dreams fall away before it. But Jones seems not to know what to do with his own seriousness. The novel flounders (literally: we get a scene that seems to come straight from the watery end of The Mill on the Floss) and then, with some flourishing of familiar rhetoric (‘I do not know what you are supposed to do with memories like these,’ Matilda says. ‘Perhaps this is why we write these things down, so we can move on’), it forgets about whatever it was that disturbed it. After the scenes of sacrifice and witness, the novel goes slack.

The themes of emotional triangularity, loyalty and betrayal are hardly new to Jones, and he is an old hand with backward glances, characters who want to be other characters, and the reading of texts within texts. Elsewhere, as in Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (2002), Jones proves sly, engaging, worth reading and even rereading; his small-scale effects are something other than the automatic inscriptions of high concept. Mister Pip is not his best work. Still, unlike, say, the anthropologically minded novelist Peter Dickinson, who works with sometimes similarly chronologically doubled structures in books at least nominally intended for children, and who allows what’s strange to emerge from an angle of such emotional intimacy that we miss the sign at which we might otherwise have wondered, Jones seems to prefer his exotic material to be marked ‘exotic’ and to allow the discomfort of his readers’ expectations of the category to substitute for the work of passionate transformation that is the novel’s real task. Although what happens to Mister Pip’s characters appals, the novel progresses as if on a motorway, signposts to meaning well marked at frequent intervals in letters a foot high.

Perhaps Jones wishes his readers might learn to read as islanders. Perhaps if I read as an islander all this would present itself to me very differently. And perhaps the discovery, quite late on, that what the children have been reading is not, as Watts has told them, ‘the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the 19th century’ but instead an abridgment, its syntax simplified, its words made more friendly to ears unused to anything but pidgin, is Jones’s signal that an investigation into the nature of the literary is nothing he ever wanted, that he is not so much interested in the status of literature as in the way people invest their values in the debate over that status. It is hard to know, and I suspect Jones himself may not be sure either.

For whom was Mister Pip meant? Though it often reads like a children’s book, Mister Pip is not one, and it is wiser, at least at intervals, than the self-help book it sometimes resembles. Odd though it sounds, it is impossible not to wonder whether in writing this sometimes wonderful, sometimes tedious, unfinished-seeming novel about reading to an audience Jones ever paused to wonder about his own audience.