Nothing but Blue Skies
The Art of Hunger
Jim Crace is a British writer who has just published his third work of fiction without having made much impression in his first two. This seems likely to change soon. Born in London in 1946 but resident in Birmingham, Crace is apparently tied to no literary group of academic or political influence. Although our real business here is with his third work of fiction, Arcadia, a preliminary account of the first two, Continent and The Gift of Stones, may give some notion of where Jim Crace is coming from.
Continent contains seven short stories, all with a flavor of fantastic Africa. It doesn’t have any big-game herds or very many naked jungle tribesmen. No geographical realities. Much of the African atmosphere is conveyed by names and titles, such as Corporal Beyat, ‘Isra-kone, a district known as Ibela-hoy, a man called Warden Awni. Several of the stories describe the tragicomedies of semicivilization, as when a minor official in an obscure village aspires to modernize his visitors’ lodge, and installs a much too powerful electric fan. There is an almost clinical report on a tribe where all the women become pregnant, and therefore give birth, simultaneously. There is a family that specializes in rearing a mutant version of the cattle called Belted Aurochs; the freemartins (neutrals) of this species are particularly prized because their milk, though scanty, is reputed to be powerfully aphrodisiac. The owner of the herd, who has used his splendid wealth to study some elementary biology, is embarrassed at the source of his money, but adjusts to it.
Other stories are simply episodes: a race is arranged and run between a horseman and a foot runner; the agent for a mining company, between solitude and frustration, goes quietly mad. They are deft stories, taut but not contrived. Commentators have proposed parallels with Borges and Coetzee, to whom I would add an overtone from V. S. Naipaul. Crace’s narratives don’t exploit current headlines, but slide into and out of fantasies in a way that leaves the imagination exercised and invigorated.
A second book but first novel, The Gift of Stones, is set in familiar British surroundings, but toward the end of the Stone Age, among prehistoric and preliterate people. The setting is by the seashore in a community of stone huts whose residents specialize in shaping flints into knives, axes, and arrowheads. Being single-minded in their pursuit of their occupation—not unlike the later inhabitants of Birmingham, one might think—they are very successful commercially. But an accident has separated the hero (who is nameless, like practically everyone else in his village) from the community of “stoneys.” During the visit of marauding traders, he is struck on the right elbow by a bowman of the enemy gang, and, because the arrow is poisoned, has to have that forearm amputated. Nowhere in the world is there a better supply of stone knives for the operation, but the supplies of anesthesia are limited, and the operation, described in gruesome …