The Bone People
What’s Bred in the Bone
In The Bone People, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize in Britain as well as the Pegasus Prize in America, nature will fight back valiantly, but the opening pages are all artifice, dispiritingly so. The stoutest reader must quail when he reads in the preface that the short story which the novel began as (and really ought to have stayed) was typed on the author’s first typewriter, a present from her mother. The novel was turned down by three publishers on the grounds that it was unsuitably large and unwieldy and “too different,” but then “Enter, to sound of trumpets and cowrieshell rattles, the Spiral Collective.” Since the author lived five hundred miles away in a different part of New Zealand and didn’t have a telephone, the Collective’s editors weren’t able to insist overmuch: “Great! The voice of the writer won through.” Did Dickens and Hawthorne carry on like this? Or Emily Brontë and George Eliot?
There are good things in the novel, even some original things, which I shall note later. Unfortunately they will be spotted only by readers of enormous patience and long-suffering, or possibly by those who, unaware of the ancient modes of modernism, are fired by the conviction that Keri Hulme has invented a brandnew style for herself. Swift remarked long ago that something can pass as wondrous deep for no better reason than that it is wondrous dark.
The narrative is chiefly mediated, directly or indirectly, through the central character, Kerewin Holmes, a one-eighth Maori woman very much of our time in being or seeking to be self-sufficient: a loner, a painter, a guitar player, wised-up in the fashionable naivetés, aikido, the Diamond Sutra, the Sufis, mandalas, the I Ching. Scraps of undistinguished verse, identified only by the layout, alternate with scraps of Maori, direct speech with meandering rivulets of consciousness.
She stares at the screaming painting.
The candlelight wavers.
The painting screams silently on.
She hates it.
It is intensely bitter.
O unjoy, is that all I can do? Show forth my misery?
The portentous alternates with the Joycean coinage (“She is immune to the eyesting of onionjuice”), the oddly ejaculatory (“Sweet apricocks and vilest excreta”), and the whimsically colloquial (“Me image hath gone down the drain”).
Aue and ach y fi, the cold and my chilblains. And that bloody little bugger upstairs. All miseries hemming me in together.
No wonder that Simon, the little bugger upstairs, asks himself, “What does she talk like that for? To fool me?”
Simon, or Haimona, is the easiest character to get along with. He is mute: a weird silver-blond boy of six or seven, either distinctly backward or precociously forward, orphaned in a shipwreck and adopted, though not legally, by a half-Maori called Joe Gillayley. We begin to warm to Kerewin when, meeting Joe for the first time, she says she had expected something big and blond and “dumb and boisterous to boot,” then remembers that Simon is present and rushes to explain that by “dumb” she meant “stupid.”
Yet there is a sort of innocence about the prose and its overwriting, whether affectedly tough-guy or affectedly profound. Keri Hulme is not being modish; she is simply—though at excessive length—being herself. The setting is the South Island of New Zealand, and the natural and animal side of the book, its earthiness and marine life, is impressive, shining brilliantly through the verbiage. The accounts of fishing trips attest to professional know-how, and the scenes in bars, occasionally reminiscent of Joyce again, are authentic and lively. Striking too are the passages concerning Maori beliefs, Maori imagination and magic. (The scraps of Maori language elsewhere are no doubt in place, but I had the impression that they were meant to add “significance” to the book rather than contribute to actuality.)
The story of The Bone People is minimal, deriving from a somewhat static triangular relationship, a relationship in which a British reviewer more suspicious than the present one saw an attempt to foist on us an allegorical Holy Family. Kerewin is an educated and well-to-do woman, hating to touch or be touched though able to outdrink and outfight most men, a virgin and sexually a neuter. (It is one manifestation of originality that she is not in for an “awakening” on this score.) Yet this tough nut has a soft center, and she is drawn against her will to the mysterious Simon.
Simon, an enterprising variation on the wolf-boy theme, is disobedient, and steals, and is subject to fits of destructive rage, behavior which (we assume) is caused by his dumbness, too commonly taken for stupidity, or by the experience of shipwreck and the loss of his parents. Joe loves him, but in uncontrollable fits of violence, due (we assume) either to his inability to communicate fully with Simon or else to the death of his wife and baby, he beats the boy: he doesn’t know why. That for some time Kerewin fails to realize what is happening, despite the broken teeth and the scars, cannot be blamed on the author, since similar failures even among trained social workers to recognize gross cases of child abuse have occurred recently in Britain and the US.
What is less understandable is that when Joe almost kills the boy—breaking his nose and jaw, smashing in the side of his skull, and reducing him to deafness as well as dumbness—he is merely sent to prison for three months. No one thinks much the worse of him. “Home is Joe, Joe of the hard hands but sweet love”: this is Simon, a child, reflecting during his convalescence. But there seems to be a general tacit agreement that you can smash a child up just as long as you love it in some strange, powerful way. With its debased memories of Wuthering Heights this belongs, at best, to the darker side of novelette writing. I would say it is positively immoral; I don’t recall such acquiescence displayed by Dickens or any other portrayer of times supposedly less tender.
Yet the author even manages to contrive a happy ending, or nonending. In the grip of cancer, Kerewin is miraculously cured by a brew of red currant juice provided by a mysterious visitant of indeterminate age and sex. Joe is returned, somewhat cloudily, to his Maori roots—the novel embraces two popular themes, roots and rootlessness—to the ancestors of the book’s title. We must hope for Simon’s sake that he has been miraculously cured of his violent temper. For the boy escapes from the home for the handicapped where he has been sent, and the three of them are reunited, to be—we gather from the prologue, “The End At The Beginning”—in some undefined way “the instruments of change.” The novel’s last words are “TE MUTUNGA—RANEI TE TAKE”: translated in the glossary as “The end—or the beginning.” Sentimentality has been lurking throughout, and now it surges to the surface.
Robertson Davies has for long been dealing in mysteries, deeper than anything in The Bone People and less restricted, less eccentric because central to Western myth and history, but always with clarity; and with—what is necessary to any mystery worth its name—a good substantial story. We might describe him as a Canadian Thomas Mann, though the chief justification for “Canadian,” not meant as a limiting epithet, is that, like Mann, he is rooted in material reality, even in provincial life, however widely his branches spread. His Deptford Trilogy, consisting of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975), a sustained achievement unparalleled in recent years, is rather more relaxed and more fantastical than his new novel, What’s Bred in the Bone. New readers might begin with The Rebel Angels of 1982, with which the new novel is lightly linked.
That rare bird, an intellectual entertainer, Robertson Davies might more closely be compared with Borges, in that both of them carry coolness and common sense into realms supposedly inimical to, or irreconcilable with, those qualities. And, more significantly, in that both taletellers see what we call “chance” as part of the complex phenomenon of causality. Coincidence, says a supernatural commentator in What’s Bred in the Bone, is “a useful, dismissive word for people who cannot bear the idea of pattern shaping their own lives.” Everything means something, whether done or left undone; what evinces itself in the flesh is what has been bred in the bone.
This is nothing so simple as the doctrine of predestination, since a fair share is left to what we think of as “free will.” The same card may be dealt out to various people, but how they use it, misuse it, or fail to use it, will depend to some degree on what was bred in the bone. A delicate balance of forces prevails, perceptible yet barely analyzable. Toward the end of World of Wonders an authoritative character says:
God wants to intervene in the world, and how is he to do it except through man? I think the Devil is in the same predicament…. It’s the moment of decision—of will—when those Two nab us, and as they both speak so compellingly it’s tricky work to know who’s talking. Where there’s a will, there are always two ways.
In What’s Bred in the Bone we overhear at intervals conversations between the Angel of Biography, a member of the Recording Angel’s staff, known as the Lesser Zadkiel, and Maimas, the personal daimon of Francis Cornish, the Canadian hero of the novel. The Lesser Zadkiel is a compassionate soul and even, as someone says, an angel of mercy, “though a lot of biographers aren’t,” whereas the Daimon Maimas declares that as a tutelary spirit it is not his job to protect softies; he is “the grinder, the shaper, the refiner.” In one of their brief, pithy chats, and with the young Francis Cornish in mind, the milder angel deplores the breaking of hearts, but Maimas asserts that the important thing is to break the heart in such a way that when it mends it will be stronger than before. His job is to nudge Francis in the direction of the destiny he may have, he’s not a guardian angel (sniff!) but a daimon, and his work is bound to seem rough at times. Like the Lesser Zadkiel, Maimas is a metaphor, as he remarks toward the end of the book, a metaphor in the service of the greater metaphors that have shaped Francis’s life: “Saturn, the resolute, and Mercury, the maker, the humorist, the trickster.” It was his task to see that these, the Great Ones, “were bred in the bone, and came out in the flesh.”
But all this makes the novel sound more, or more explicitly, philosophical or theological than it is. It is that. But it is also a fascinating story, beautifully organized, never drifting into inconsequence, its literal narrative and its metaphorical signals always in step, as with the best poetry. Or, a comparison more germane, the greatest painting.
The plot of What’s Bred in the Bone is complex and packed with incident and “coincidence”; to attempt to summarize it would be foolish. “I also was what was bred in his bone, right from the instant of his conception,” says the Daimon Maimas. And since nature and nurture are inextricable—“only scientists and psychologists could think otherwise,” the Lesser Zadkiel remarks, “and we know all about them, don’t we?”—we follow Francis’s life from his birth into a wealthy, patrician Canadian family, through schools and Oxford University, training as a restorer (and rather more) of old paintings, rather shadowy work in British counterintelligence, an unfortunate marriage and a happy though short-lived love affair, up to the moment of his death. If death is the right term, for perhaps the strange words of the angel in that painting by some old master, The Marriage at Cana (actually a creation of Francis’s, undetected by the experts), were correct: “Thou hast kept the best wine till the last.”
Whoever is concerned with the ineffable must be liberal in adducing the effable, and firm and exact in portraying it. The way to the infinite, Goethe observed, is by following the finite in as many directions as you can. Without clarity and cleanness of expression, and the persuasive authority they bring, no excursion into mystery will be more than merely mystifying. And those qualities rely on knowledge, simple knowledge if you like, but sound knowledge. Since Robertson Davies is usually so trustworthy, so precise and right, his rare inexactitudes—or what seem so—stand out the more. Would a young lady in the mid-1930s talk of something being “bang on”? The expression is believed to derive from bomber crews’ slang in the Second World War and, according to Eric Partridge, was adopted by civilians as meaning “dead accurate” around 1954. Back home in Canada after the war, on page 414, Francis hears painters talking about dipping deep into their own unconscious, “a word that was new to Francis in this context”—although his mentor Saraceni had used it mockingly three times in his presence, in prewar Germany, on pages 333 and 334. Small matters, however.
In Fifth Business there is much out-of-the-way (yet pertinent) history and hagiology, along with technical insights into magic and illusionism; in The Manticore a sound grasp of Jungian theory; in World of Wonders a vivid account of a traveling carnival show, its freaks, jugglers, conjurers, and knife throwers.
We have educated ourselves into a world from which wonder, and the fear and dread and splendor and freedom of wonder have been banished…. Wonder is marvelous but it is also cruel, cruel, cruel. It is undemocratic, discriminatory, and pitiless.
Merged with minor triumphs like the counterpointing of Catholics and Protestants in the Ottawa Valley town of Blairlogie, the dominant theme in the present novel is art, and the underworld of art, managed with what one would term expertise were it not that the experts make a sorry showing here. Francis is able to prove that a Harrowing of Hell purportedly painted by Hubertus van Eyck is a later forgery in that the monkey hanging by its tail from the bars of hell is not the traditional Macacus rhesus but a Cebus capucinus from the New World; and monkeys with prehensile tails were unknown in Europe in van Eyck’s day. If “chance” had led Francis to the local zoo on the afternoon before the experts met in the Hague to sit in judgment, it was his innate perceptiveness that made the connection.
Francis’s early training lay in drawing the corpses at the Blairlogie undertaker’s, which also served as the local bootlegger’s. Later he apprentices himself to the brilliant if faintly sinister Italian, Tancred Saraceni, a master restorer of old paintings, who keeps the Renaissance “in repair.” The two work in Germany, tarting up boring and forgotten old canvases on Germanic themes, which are then sent to a London wine merchant, and subsequently acquired by high-ranking Nazis, patriotic connoisseurs, for the proposed national collection—in exchange for Italian and other non-German works of greater artistic value. When war breaks out Francis’s role in MI5, besides vaguely investigating fishy refugees, is to follow the movements of looted works of art. Two of his own unsigned paintings turn up later in Goering’s private collection.
Like other “unworldly” characters in the book, Saraceni has a sharp eye for money. (A keen cinema-goer in his youth, Francis didn’t care for Charlie Chaplin: “He was a loser.”) Saraceni is Francis’s earthly daimon, at least his guide and scurrilous guru, and he shows some kinship with the satanic visitant in Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Francis observes that when he is in Saraceni’s presence, and particularly when the Italian is discoursing on art’s heedlessness of conventional morality, he feels like Faust listening to Mephistopheles:
The Kingdom of Christ, if it ever comes, will contain no art; Christ never showed the least concern with it. His church has inspired much but not because of anything the Master said. Who then was the inspirer? The much-maligned Devil, one supposes. It is he who understands and ministers to man’s carnal and intellectual self, and art is carnal and intellectual.
Saraceni’s disparaging views on modern art are shared by Francis, and by Robertson Davies too, one surmises, for they point up the novel’s “meaning.” In earlier times the inner vision with which all true painters are concerned “presented itself in a coherent language of mythological or religious terms,” but now both mythology and religion have lost their power to move. And so
the artist solicits and implores something from the realm of what the psychoanalysts, who are the great magicians of our day, call the Unconscious, though it is actually the Most Conscious. And what they fish up—what the Unconscious hangs on the end of the hook the artists drop into the great well in which art has its being—may be very fine, but they express it in a language more or less private. It is not the language of mythology or religion. And the great danger is that such private language is perilously easy to fake. Much easier to fake than the well-understood language of the past.
Like Mann’s, like Henry James’s, Robertson Davies’s people are both dismayingly and inspiringly intelligent; we feel humble, or underprivileged, beside them, but we believe in them. They have no need of streams-of-consciousness or similar latter-day devices to impress their high seriousness upon the reader, or make up for a poverty of story. Where the unconscious is concerned, and other mysteries factitious or genuine, they are able to be perfectly and unself-consciously conscious. Their author offers both pleasure and instruction.