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By Lloyd Jones
The Dial Press / ISBN: 978-0-385-34106-6
So once again it's time for the Booker Prize, which for those who don't know is basically the British version of the Pulitzer, and in fact an award that a lot of people consider a lot more important than the Pulitzer, and a lot more indicative of the best that culture had to offer that particular year. And for those who don't know, only books that have been written and published within the "British Commonwealth" are eligible for a Booker, which means that most Booker nominees tend to have a strong British flair to them as well; and seriously, it doesn't get much more British in tone than the first of the 2007 Booker nominees to be reviewed here at CCLaP this year, New Zealander Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip, which in fact many consider the favorite to actually win it all this year. It is an odd and delicate book, one I wouldn't normally otherwise read, if not for wanting to cover as many Booker nominees as I can this year; and now that I'm done with it, I'm not sure whether to call it brilliant or a fey little mess, or perhaps a unique little creature in-between.
The novel is set at
an unnamed third-world tropical island somewhere near New Zealand Bougainville Island near Papua New Guinea, one that works a lot like many third-world societies in Africa and Central America as well: a bloody dictatorship is in control of the government and major cities, an organized rebellion hides and fights in the outlying areas, and the small villages in the wilderness keep doing what they always do, no matter what's going on in the cities or with the people who don't like what's going on in the cities. As described with a kind of magical metaphorical slant by Jones, the village at the center of Mister Pip seems to be one of those lovely wonderful edens seen in a lot of "The White Man"s view of these societies -- a human version of The Lion King, perhaps, where every off-handed tale from a village mother just happens to be a beautifully-worded allegorical story regarding some modern liberal moral virtue or another, and you're just waiting for everyone to break into synchronized song and dance.
This is an early and big complication in Mister Pip, to tell you the truth; not a "problem" per se and not necessarily a "strength," in that it is in fact difficult to even determine how to feel about the very, very Kiplingesque "White Man's Burden" style and feel going on here. Or, that is, Jones isn't literally arguing for the benefits of Empire, and for providing good Christian educations to all the backwards heathens of the world; but he definitely is doing something in his story that a lot of legitimate pro-Empire writers do as well, which is to cutesify the behavior and dialogue of the natives from these third-world lands, to "anglicize" the story as a way of getting their message across to big hoards of white people at once. In this case, for example, Jones adds a Caucasian to this tropical island slash political hotspot; a former New Zealander, in fact, who fell in love with one of the villagers back when she spent some time as a cleaning woman in New Zealand, and who followed her back to the village when circumstances forced the move. With all this strife and chaos going on around them, the extremely British Mr. Watts decides that he is going to start teaching all the schoolchildren himself, so that they can all start getting an education again; unfortunately the only book available in the entire village is the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations, so thank God then that Mr. Watts can make this Victorian tale magically come alive for these modern third-world villagers of color!
Precious accounts of village mothers scrawling family tales on the school walls! Guilty monologues about how bad and pointless it's gotten in many of these third-world countries, and how entitled white people should be doing more! Precocious observations by illiterate children as to modern comparisons between Dickens and third-world life, that can usually only be thought up by advanced academes in first-world universities! And this of course is what I mean by this being a very privileged-Caucasian, very privileged-liberal kind of book, the kind just destined to become front-runners at precious little liberal Caucasian literary contests like the Booker, in that it wraps together the favorite causes of cultured, educated white liberals so tightly as to legitimately be called porn -- not just a tale from a third-world village, but about the enlightenment that comes from the basics of academic study (memorization, analysis, grammar-parsing), where every offhanded remark ever made by a villager just happens to be magically perfect in a deeply metaphorical way, where the time-tested theories of white academic liberals always save the day, but always by others voluntarily adopting the theories instead of the theories ever being forced on people. Cue the NPR report cut to a world-music soundtrack, ladies and gentlemen. And this will undoubtedly make a lot of people mutter a disgusted "ugh" when reading through the book, just like a part of me did when reading through it myself.
But here's the bewitching part of Mister Pip, and why it's been getting so much attention; because damn if it doesn't all work anyway when the story is at its best, and actually becomes that moving, emotional, deeply metaphorical tale about free will and basic human dignity. That's the thing that ultimately kept me reading through to the end, and why I ultimately argue that there are good things about this book along with the frustrations mentioned before; that when the novel is working at its best, which is does for big huge sections at a time, it really does become a gripping tale about the similarities of world culture, of the very primal things about the human spirit that can be transplanted from one society to the next, sometimes through the precise projects like Great Expectations that we thought long outdated for modern life. When Jones gets his comparative stories right, he gets them really right, and there are places where it's almost impossible not to fall in love with the main character Matilda, and the way this barely literate teenage girl on a tropical island develops a massive nerd infatuation with our sooty Dickens antihero Pip. The story definitely has a strong argument to make for such things as the power of imagination -- the power it has to bring people together across classes and cultures, to make people less susceptible to fanaticism, to maintain a minimum human dignity and optimism about the world.
Ultimately, I guess, Mister Pip is one of those books designed for a specific type of reader; a well-written book to be sure, a fascinating one at points no matter who you are, but one that will undoubtedly make a certain amount of people roll their eyes, and wonder just how many more delicate preachy metaphorical tales the world's academic lefties are going to crank out, anyway. If you like such tales, you're going to love Mister Pip; and if you usually hate such tales, you should probably give the book a try anyway, although you may find quickly that it's simply not your cup of tea.
Out of 10: