Friday, July 31, 2009

Devotion to the sacred Heart of Darkness: novelist Albert Sánchez Piñol journeys back 100 years to reawaken the mystery of the world

Steamship routes circa 1900

The artwork that envelops Penguin Canada’s recent editions of Cold Skin ($18) and Pandora in the Congo ($18) feature spare images that represent distinctive, exotic locations, a lighthouse overlooking a seductively gloomy sea of mist in the first, the talon-like roots of some massive tropical tree in the second. The images loom over the titles, and are cradled in darkness. I wanted to applaud Daniel Cullen’s cover designs because they immediately made me intrigued by this pair of novels from an author I hadn’t heard of, and, most importantly, they did so by evoking something extremely rare in contemporary fiction, promising stories of places in the world still shrouded in shadow, of mysteries lingering within under-explored and little understood landscapes. Which is precisely what these wonderful new books offer us.

Albert Sánchez Piñol

Translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan and now available to English-language readers, Cold Skin, originally published in 2002, and Pandora in the Congo, originally published in 2005, are the first works of Catalan author Albert Sánchez Piñol, a former anthropologist whose fecund imagination feeds upon models from what feels like a very long century ago. Yet somehow his stories read not in slightest like the sort of postmodern pastiche common to other recent incorporations of genre into literary fiction. He’s not subverting older narrative forms so much as shaking them back to life and imbuing them with significance for a new, smaller world. These are serious novels of adventure and strangeness, written with a serious focus on deeply engaging plotting and precise description, and on rendering the fantastical as something chillingly real. The stories, unsurprisingly, are set in the same time period as the sort of popular novels they recall, those of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad especially. To remind us how mysterious our world can be, how conducive to wild imaginings, Sánchez Piñol takes us back to a moment when even the most technologically advanced and powerful societies were not so confident, and certainly not so convincing, in their claims as to what the rest of the world is made of. I ate it up like candy. Except this candy is nutritious!—it entertains the hell out of you, but also resonates intensely with the frailties of the human psyche and the ongoing precariousness of colonial pursuits.

“We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love.” As Cold Skin begins its nameless narrator is about to arrive on the small Antarctic isle where the rest of the novel will take place. He has taken the job of weather observer and is contracted for one year. The rhythms are incantory, guiding us ominously in toward our destination, imparting upon us in just a handful of words great distance and time and arduous travel. “We had our first sighting of the island at dawn. It had been thirty-three days since the dolphins fell away sternward and nineteen since the crew’s breath first expelled clouds of vapour.” The narrator is accompanied by the ship’s captain and some crewmembers to carry his year’s worth of food and books to his new abode. They encounter the only other man on the island, the lighthouse keeper, but he behaves strangely and may have gone insane. Nevertheless the ship needs to continue on its route and leaves the narrator there.

Cold Skin is a short novel, and things get weird fast. The narrator discovers the terrible secret of this lonesome place: a race of amphibious creatures who attack only at night. He’s soon forced to make an uneasy alliance with the lighthouse keeper in order to fend off the creatures. The lighthouse keeper holds one of the creatures captive, a female, whose eerie allure gives the novel its title. Bestiality becomes familiar in this uncivilized place, and jealousy and desire rise up out of the murk. I won’t tell you just where this all goes, though its image-vocabulary, themes and motifs are rich enough to spill over into Sánchez Piñol’s follow-up.

Pandora in the Congo is twice as long as Cold Skin, and while it departs from its predecessor’s lean, claustrophobic approach, it is in many ways more ambitious while still focusing on young, ostensibly pacifist heroes with few attachments—orphans of one sort or another—and adventures in hostile places that engender unsustainable or unattainable strange love. As the First World War looms, Londoner Tommy Thomson makes his first forays into a literary career, albeit of a not very distinguished sort. He becomes a ghostwriter for a crude, racist old bastard, more a brand name than a legitimate author. He makes a pittance and works like a slave to crank out pre-plotted pulp tales of heroic Europeans in savage lands. But a series of coincidental deaths lead Tommy to realize that there are is in fact a longer chain of would-be ghostwriters than he thought, and that he, being the final link, is simply the most deftly exploited: the ghostwriter’s ghostwriter’s ghostwriter’s ghostwriter. He then takes another, seemingly more noble ghostwriting gig, working for a barrister who represents a man accused of double homicide while working as a cook for two aristocratic brothers exploring the Congo with a team of black African slaves who do all the heavy lifting and then some. He’s to interview the accused and novelize his story, the idea being that by making his Congolese adventure into something compelling and sympathetic the barrister will go to trail with the public on the side of his client. It’s in doing these interviews that Tommy’s adventure really begins, though it is very much a kind of adventure by proxy.

Tommy narrates Pandora in the Congo from a perspective of 60 years, though Sánchez Piñol is careful to minimize the editorializing of hindsight, letting us develop our own understanding of how the novel’s complex webs of treachery speak to the modern world. There are exceptions of course, but I’d argue that they enlighten us more than they condescend: “active collaboration in evil was a matter of a concession as simple as holding out your hand… that hand was the essence of the twentieth century.” Culpability is endlessly ambiguous here. Tommy writes hateful trash, but he does so only because he’s employed by the trash’s true author. He later writes a great adventure novel that he only hopes is in the service of a good cause, but he could just as easily be completely deceived. The man whose story Tommy writes—the man has the curious name of Marcus Garvey—commits horrific acts while journeying through the Congo, but he does so under strict orders from the men who employ him. Such moral quandaries only balloon as the plots continues to take its marvelous twists.

Illustration from H.M. Stanley's In Darkest Africa (1890)

Besides the rich white Europeans and poor white Europeans, besides the black slaves being worked to death and the black slaves employed to help exploit their own kind, there is an additional people roped into Tommy’s narrative, an underground race of humanoids who, like the creatures in Cold Skin, quickly become the Other for which violence and domination are deemed the only appropriate response. As in Cold Skin, a female from this race becomes the centre point of a battle between various male desires, including that of our narrator. The novel’s narrative threads are laid out with the caveat that nearly all of them are relayed by someone other than the writer of the words we read. They are interpreted, digested, possibly tainted, possibly lies. Our narrator seems himself to be reliable, but he can only narrate what he’s told. In the end we’re overwhelmed by the impossibility of stories being the creations of a single author, and here is where he catch a glimpse of the philosophy of Sánchez Piñol himself, who openly employs the styles and trajectories of the novels he’s presumably admired. Let’s not get too concerned with tracing or judging the indefinable labyrinth of sources for our tales, Pandora in the Congo implies, but rather surrender to the conviction of the telling we’re given. It may be the only lasting consolation.

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