Monday, January 17, 2011

Once on this island

Island literature is so wonderfully stagey. Like the murder in the English village, the island is a self-contained playground for certain fantasies to run wild, and for certain conceits to be explored. I wonder who first discovered the island as the fertile ground to explore themes of civilization and degeneration? For characters to perform as a microcosm (a word I learned when reading Lord of the Flies) for society.

I traced my way to The Island of Dr. Moreau backwards: from LOST, to Bioy Casares’ Invention of Morel, to a lecture on mad doctors and vivisection (from which I learned the term apophane, or, cutting the vocal chords of an animal so that the vivisector will not be bothered by the sounds of pain by the subject under the knife), to a Penguin Classic picked up in George’s best used bookstore.

It was an unnerving and unsafe read: chanting beast-people and scientists with questionable ethics are the only companions this narrator can expect to have on a mysterious island after being rescued from a shipwreck. Moreau, a white-haired scientist who wants to transform his animal subjects into people by his knife and instruction, is attended by Montgomery, a doctor who has taken to drink and is sympathetic to the beast-people.

Prendick, the narrator, sees the beast-people exhibiting worrying signs of atavism, and the reader understands that Moreau only has the upper hand for now. Prendick is unlikeable: his lack of sympathy for the beast-people (and his despising Montgomery for his sympathy) and their animal regression demonstrates a repression and self-loathing. The beast-people are uncomfortably like him, but he is clear to emphasize their otherness. Prendick’s initial vague descriptions of the beast-people as black faced, misshapen servants wearing excited animal expressions easily mirrors the interplay of colonizer and colonized.

For Prendick, the most terrifying discovery of his narrative is how much his own civilization mirrors the beast-people’s society, how much their decay might be our own. The most uneasy part of the narrative for me was the cries of the puma in the room next to Prendick’s as she is being remade. (Moreau does not here make use of apophane.) The day after reading this I went to a craft fair and when a giant Rottweiler happily brushed by, I was unable to stop thinking about what monstrosity Moreau would have turned the dog into, and what sounds it would have made.


Annie said...

Not, I think, a book I would want to read, but nevertheless thank you for the point you make about island books. It isn't something I've thought about before and now I shall be looking out for other examples.

Ian Wolcott said...

The Last chapter of Island of Doctor Moreau, I recall, gave me the chills. I felt uncomfortable walking in crowded public spaces for a while.

Another island book: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by GB Edwards, set on Guernsey. That was probably the best book I read in 2009.

Another really wonderful island book: Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye, which is set on Sark (it's all about the Channel Islands, apparently). It's hard to find in the US, but perhaps more readily obtained in the UK. If you haven't read it yet, save it for a day when you need a break and a laugh. And have plenty of tea on hand. Pure bliss.

Shelf of One's Own said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Ian. I've seen the NYRB around - must keep my eye out for it. C

Shelf of One's Own said...

The Edwards, that is. And will also watch out for the Peake. (He did Gormenghast, didn't he?)

Ian Wolcott said...

Yes, same Peake, but a very different book. His children's book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor is great too, but very hard to find in the US.

Annie Tietje said...

I have read the first few chapters, and it raises all the hair on the back of my neck. I couldn't continue. My love for animals made me put the book down. I'm sure if I had read the puma scene I would have been in tears.