Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States of America last month was exhilarating, on one plane of analysis, because of his rapid rise in a field packed with cynical practitioners, his ability to connect with citizens and make common cause with opponents, and his promise of a politics of greater intelligence and integrity than we have seen recently from the world’s only superpower. But Obama’s victory also carried an enormous redemptive charge because it symbolically closed the circle on centuries of black suffering and subjugation that gave the lie to the American claim of liberty and equality for all, and that continued to flourish as a current of resentment, scepticism and disharmony in contemporary American life.
Among the most influential of the many American artists and intellectuals who endorsed Obama’s candidacy was writer Toni Morrison. Morrison’s remarkable novels, all the way from The Bluest Eye (1970) to Love (2003), have supplied a visionary reading of both the debilitation and the fortitude of Black American life and the moral canker at the heart of American society. Now the only living American Nobel laureate for literature (she won the prize in 1993), Morrison is an original whose books are distinguished by their complex and embattled protagonists, their imaginative scope (although her novels are about an explosive reality, they are never banally realistic), their alertness to the play of history and memory in human life, their vision of the transfiguring power of friendship and community, and above all by their rich, intimate and lyrical language. She is one of those writers who begins anew with each work; her novels rove widely over American geography and explore predicaments specific to different eras. Morrison’s new novel A Mercy, her first in five years, is not only welcome on its own terms but also seems perfectly timed to commemorate a historic moment in race relations in the US.
An original: This is Morrison’s first new novel in five years. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Random House via Bloomberg
In A Mercy—a title as clipped and resonant as those of previous works such as Jazz, Beloved, Paradise, Sula and Tar Baby—Morrison ventures further back into American time than ever before, and drops us into a small farm in Virginia in 1690. America is not a republic yet, a collection of colonies of settlers from different parts of Europe. The slave trade is still in its infancy, and the greatest sufferers in the recent past are the native Americans, large numbers of whom have been decimated by colonial wars and by the smallpox virus carried by Europeans. In this precarious world, wracked by hardship and disease, ordered and regulated by a fierce and unyielding Protestant world view that we would today call fundamentalist, we are led into the house of an Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader, Jacob Vaark, and his strange collection of women.
Jacob is himself an orphan; he spent his boyhood in a poorhouse, graduated to menial jobs, and has only come to his station because of the land left to him by an uncle. The land spurs Jacob to activity, ambition, consolidation and population. The first woman to arrive on the estate is Lina, a Native American girl whose tribe has been decimated, and whom he buys after seeing an advertisement for a “hardy female, Christianized and capable in all matters domestic”. The second is Jacob’s wife Rebekka, sent by ship from England in answer to an advertisement posted by Jacob for a wife, and willing to take the risk of dependence on a unknown man in a distant world because of the wretchedness of her own family. Finally, there are two more castaways picked up on his travels by Jacob, who is sympathetic to the suffering of children: a silent, ugly girl called Sorrow who seems half-mad, and a pretty black child called Florens. Florens burns with outrage at having been given away to Jacob by her own mother (this act is an echo of the central action in Morrison’s novel Beloved, in which a mother kills her daughter to save her from a life of slavery).
A Mercy: Chatto & Windus, 166 pages, Rs700.
The beauty of Morrison’s novel is all in its intensity: It concentrates into a little more than 150 pages the stories of these five disparate people who form a motley family. Turning from one character to another, Morrison constructs a vivid mosaic of mutual dependence and private grief, presented in a language of Shakespearean grandeur and homeliness.
Jacob and his wife, unfortunate to begin with, have something like an ideal marriage; they “leaned on each other root and crown”, but their life is blighted by the repeated death, in infancy, of several children. Lina has been schooled in European practices and beliefs but remains puzzled by the ways of the settlers, especially their hunger for possession and appetite for destruction: “Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable.” Florens is captivated by a blacksmith who comes to work on the Vaark estate, and becomes giddy with love. “I am happy the world is breaking open for us,” she quavers, “but its newness trembles me.”
Morrison has a talent for writing marvellous scenes: at a tavern men shout in “liquored glee”; Jacob first appears out of a fog that is “sun fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold”; Rebekka’s fellow women passengers in the dark hold of the ship, a set of thieves and prostitutes, lay out a meal with “the manners of queens”.
Her work always asserts the dignity of human relationships and striving, and at the same time the fragility of human structures in a deeply unjust and rapacious world. Her characters are in search, in unpromising circumstances, “of a way to be in the world”. This sinewy narrative, in which not a sentence is wasted and the moral and artistic possibilities of the material are expertly marshalled, glows just like Jacob Vaark’s ghost in a late scene in the novel—one of many ghosts in the books of a writer whose very work is to raise the spirits of the dead.
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