Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All not about sheep

It has been a long wait but finally I have found a second great novel where incidentally you learn a great deal about sheep!

The first is knowingly famous: Halldor Laxness' 'Independent People' that extraordinary exploration of the failure of 'independent living' in a world that requires community, and the intimacy of family.

The second is a more neglected book: Neil M. Gunn's 'The Drinking Well' which is a beautifully crafted story of a young man's coming to maturity in travelling away from and return to 'the land' and a recovery of community. It is a community known innocently at the start, later recovered in conscious experience.

Both books are utterly rooted to a place, in time - late nineteenth century Iceland in the former, between the Wars Scotland in the latter, neither strikes you as especially experimental in form, adopting a comfortable realism, even though both are tinged with the transcendent and the uncanny.

Both too are saturated in nationalism and socialism - a recovery of national autonomy as a prerequisite to a rediscovery of equality, an equality rooted in history and culture as much as in political theory.

Gunn writes with alternating grace and a kind of pedestrian efficiency that carries story (and argument on).

The opening is breathtaking as the dawn light interrogates the valley revealing its features until it alights on the face of Iain's, the main character's, mother, whose desire for her children to better themselves, away from the land so lighted, is the desire that drives the story forward. He, also, writes beautiful of our ability to lose thought in the practice of skill, in Iain's case his ability to play the fiddle, and, in the pursuit of adventure: the poaching of salmon.

Then there are the sheep...

However,  I find Gunn a prescient writer - not only for having 'anticipated' the '60s' rediscovered linkage between the personal and the political - that a new age requires a shift in consciousness, a spiritual renewal as well as institutional change; but, in recognizing the virtue of the small, the regional, the national that unless people have control over the resources of their community, there can be no lasting change, that is sustainable - and that begins with the 'land'. In our gathering 'resource constrained world' - the importance of the land will become ever more critical and who owns it essential to our future prospects. Gunn recognises the dual importance of the community and the nation state; and, I expect would have been keen on the dismantling of 'globalization' - peacefully and intelligently before it implodes in ways that will be messy, ugly and conflictual.

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