Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

A Modest Tribute

Dear Mr Heaney,

I studied a few of your poems in the twelfth grade. You were the last, the most ‘recent’ in a group of twentieth century poets who were encased in the covers of a robin’s egg blue book, its front emblazoned with portraits of Tennyson, Blake and, yes, you. I didn’t know who you were when I received that book, and I didn’t particularly thrill to your music. You were not, in my very considered opinion, a ‘poet’, because you didn’t write in rhyming verses, nor did you describe beautiful things like King Arthur’s exploits, Elven women in the Wood and tigers blazing in the night.

What use is poetry, I thought, if it cannot cloak the dreariness of the world? Why would anyone want to read about potatoes, or peat-frozen women, Mr Heaney? Why would they open a book of verse to find these things when they could get the real version easily enough? Where was the beauty of it?

You didn’t have the passion of Hughes, tearing into existence tooth and claw, painting lovesongs red with the blood of an opened vein. You weren’t Tennyson, aesthetisizing grief and, with your rhythmic melodies, moving your reader and yourself past it. You weren’t Larkin, making biting, bitter statements about the futility and meaninglessness of existence, though like him, you used the everyday and wove your words around things we could all know and understand.

The question I had was, why would we want to see what we already understood?

High school and its dreary annals behind me, I arrived in college, breathless with anticipation of what ‘literature’ awaited me. As I wandered the dust-moted lanes of the Library, I chanced upon your translation of ‘Beowulf’ in a section that contained, mostly, writing by and on the Romantic poets.

Why would I, sitting in my corner of the world, would know about Beowulf. The answer is long and complicated and involves a lot of history and politics and other affairs which, hailing from the country you did, would know much more of than me. I think you will understand if I skip the history lesson.

For me, however, Beowulf and the fact that I know of its significance is more than a matter of political and cultural history. I love the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and when I learned that Beowulf was one of the texts he taught and modelled his own epic on, I knew I to read it. And you made that possible.

It was then, when I had finished your translation, that it came home to me why people loved you, why they celebrated you. In your own manner, you were doing the same as Tolkien: weaving pride and dignity from the annals of history, placing the humble in the spotlight, showing that fortune’s wheel is turned, as he put it, ‘by small hands while the great are looking elsewhere’.

And then I read you with freshly-opened eyes, watched as you carved a live skull from the ground with your pen, scattered a libation of ink on its peat-encrusted brow, kissed it back into its native earth with words, gave it fame, if not the peace it had lacked in life. I watched as you whittled away with your ‘spade’ and the past and present swam into focus, clarified by your stark and uncompromising, and yet, strangely gentle words. You were ever in the shadows, I thought, translating, translating, the history of your world into literature, bringing it out there for the rest of us to see.

From you I learned that poetry is not always glamorous, that it is not just the clever spinning of words—neither is prose, for that matter, though I still fall prey to the sweet and easy seduction of a finely turned phrase. See, I’m doing it again.

I learned that a writer’s role, really, a true Writer (not the many that crowd the markets, but those few who, as my colleague put it, reach above and stay there as beacons for the rest of us), is to watch the world and ‘dig’ into its ‘gravelly’ ground with a ‘squat’ pen. From you I learned reflection. From you I learned that literature is not always the sounding of trumpets and the death grin of a pike, the sheen of a painting on a wall.

So thank you, Mr Heaney. Thank you for that lesson.