Tales of the New World
On the face of it, Sabina Murray’s latest collection of tales appears to take up where her PEN/Faulkner Award-winning collection, The Caprices, left off. Those were tough-edged, yet humane, stories embedded in the Pacific conflicts of World War II. The final story in that book featured Ferdinand Magellan’s discovery of Saipan, and this new one revisits him as a character in the story “Translation.” Magellan recruits the translator Pigafetta to be his chronicler because even famous explorers need some good PR. History may be ‘written by the victor’ but discoveries are defined by their scribes rather than by the victorious explorers themselves.
Tales of the New World is about voyaging far afield, and yet it begins with the story “Fish” in the utter closeness of “still, dark air” within a basement where Mary Kingsley has been bricked away from the world by her mother’s ill-health. Thus, from the outset and from confinement, Murray creates a new world for the reader. Escaping from this stultifying, closeted existence with “a magpie’s education from The College of Whatever Happened to be On Father’s Bookshelf,” Mary develops an extraordinary ambition for a woman in the late nineteenth century, to “explore the interior” of Africa. “This comes to her in an inspired moment, while doing her accounting.” Mary’s real adventure, of course, was to travel so far beyond the confines of her sex. Murray’s story encouraged me to seek out writing by the real Mary Kingsley, who was niece of the author Charles Kingsley and who took the wise precaution of chronicling her own explorations for posterity, although that didn’t prevent Murray from reinventing her again in fictional form.
With any historically based fiction a key factor in its appreciation is often what lies outside the story and how that impacts upon what is depicted within it. For example, imagine reading Don DeLillo’s Falling Man in a few centuries time without any preconceptions about what happened in New York on September 11, 2001. Similarly, I have no prior knowledge of the events or explorers depicted in most of Murray’s stories. One of the few exceptions to this is “Paradise,” which is concerned with the events of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978. Since I have an awareness of the skeleton of ‘the plot’ of this iconic event, I don’t personally mind that it is not supplied to me within the story. But its omission does leave me wondering what someone coming to the story cold would make of it. Not only does “Paradise” fail to sketch in events fully, the narrative makes a virtue of repeating facts and opinions and frequently contradicting itself. Indeed, it is one of those pieces of writing that causes the reader to consider the nature of story itself. The effect is somewhat indoctrinating, but also hypnotically poetic.
Tragedy is waste. Tragedy is the reminder of human helplessness. Tragedy invents God everywhere it chooses to appear. Tragedy destroys God everywhere it chooses to appear. Tragedy has its super stars. Tragedy has its victims. Tragedy forces people to take stock of their lives [as if lives were pantries or mutual funds] and find meaning in it. Tragedy is what forces people to take stock of their lives [as if lives were pantries or mutual funds] and find all essentially meaningless.
For me, this was the stand-out story of the collection, the one I will return to and marvel at for its technique and effect.
Not all of the stories in this collection succeeded in firing my imagination to quite the same extent, but all are powerful and tautly written with more packed away for subsequent readings. A number of stories continue to play with the notion of who is the storyteller of a discovery or even a chronicler of the story itself. In “Full Circle Thrice,” William Dampier comes back to wrangle with the author and insist, “I am not a character, but a writer. A writer happy to be such, not desperate like you, who for a reason unknown to me has felt the need to put herself in her own story.” As if by way of revenge or reward for this interruption, Murray gives him a fictional exhumation from a London graveyard and reburies him on the Western coast of Australia. This sort of explicit negotiating with the parameters of fact and fiction is lightly done throughout the entirety of the writing. It worked as an accent point, rather than a distraction within the narratives.
Tales of the New World covers an impressive historical sweep. As in The Caprices we often find out what happened to characters many years after their heyday. Regrets, betrayals and misunderstandings frequently make bitter traveling companions through these new worlds, as can an explorer’s reading material. In “The Solace of Monsters,” Captain Coffin is reading Frankenstein. This story, and the collection as a whole, shows that there is no need to invent monsters. Here be dragons—plenty of them—but they are mostly of the human kind.
Pauline Masurel is a short fiction writer who lives in South West England and who will be traveling to New Zealand in 2012. Her website is at www.unfurling.net.