Friday, 12 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 4)

A prior training as a scientist (or a historian) neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person from writing fiction. Great fiction has been written by people from almost every imaginable background. To my mind, however, the writer who has, after Golding, been most successful in bringing these remote periods to vivid, irrepressible life, is the American social anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

In Reindeer Moon, Marshall Thomas’s first parson narrator, Yanan, unlike Golding’s viewpoint character, Lok, is a fully modern human and, as such, has no structural limitations in her use of language. Because she is narrating in the first person, however, Marshall Thomas denies herself the opportunity, which Golding and Auel both take, of stepping out of character to explain things from the perspective of the reader’s world. All of her metaphors, similes, jokes and figures of speech must be drawn from the lived reality of Yanan’s world, and it is precisely this which makes that world come alive for the reader.

The rest of the people fed the fire and got ready to cook the meat...everyone waited for me to divide the carcass. Timu helped me, since making a division was something new to me. I had to be sure that my in-laws got the best parts – the hind-parts – while making sure that my kin got even shares of the front parts. And Timu didn’t act as though the carcass was his...he nicely covered the only real mistake I made – treating White Fox as Meri’s betrothed and Swift merely as my co-wife’s kinsman – by apologising as if he had made the mistake himself” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

One might, perhaps, question the use of the term “in-laws,” with its modern legalistic connotations, but it is difficult to know what one would put in its place, other than an invented word which would make the text less readable. One might question, also, Marshall Thomas’s use of Latin-derived medical/anatomical terms to describe bodily functions (her characters have “coitus” rather than sex, and they “defecate” and “urinate” rather than shitting and pissing). Perhaps Marshall Thomas (or her editors) had in mind the sensitivities of her readership, but it is difficult to respect these sensitivities whilst taking the reader into a world as visceral as Yanan’s.

These, however, are minor quibbles in relation to a novel that really does take the reader into a long-vanished world:

Yoi...began to sing. Meri and I joined – it was Yoi’s fire-river song, to be sung by at least two people, since the idea for this song came from wolves’ songs with two parts. Yoi began, and Meri and I followed, singing strongly, although the song seemed to be drawn away from us by the huge sky...When the sun was low, we got hungry...Yoi took from her bag a long strip of meat from the dead mammoth, lightly cooked and bad smelling. A small piece of it was enough” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

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