I read my first Peter Carey book, His Illegal Self, earlier this year, and frankly speaking, I wasn't overly impressed, despite some interesting characterisation, However, I thought it was only fair to give him another go, and I picked up a copy of Oscar and Lucinda on a recent library trip (my elder daughter, Emily, was distracted by something shiny for long enough to allow me a quick look around A-D). The verdict? Well worth a read.
The story follows two lonely souls, English priest Oscar Hopkins and rich Australian orphan Lucinda Leplastrier, as they float along their early lives only to have them intersect and entwine under unusual circumstances. Both find themselves separated from their own kind by taste and circumstances, but it is a shared passion which brings them together: a love of gambling.
When the beautiful and headstrong Lucinda reveals her secret to her new clerical acquaintance, she expects the usual disapproving response, especially from a man of the cloth. Instead, Oscar's face lights up and he describes her vice in an entirely new light.
'Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. ...we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise.' (p336, 2005, Vintage Books)As the unlikely couple cross paths repeatedly and eventually come closer, the obsessive and the compulsive gambler stake their futures on the outcome of a larger wager, the bet which will shape their futures. Alas, we know from the start, in the form of a series of teasing interjections from our narrator, Oscar's great-grandson, that this is one gamble which is not going to come off.
Oscar and Lucinda starts rather slowly, and the first couple of hundred pages didn't really grab me. However, as the narrative gently ebbed forward, I became more and more involved with the odd couple and their intriguing story; by the end of the book, I was desperate to find out what had happened and how the beginning and end of the story came together.
One of Carey's strength is the descriptiveness of his writing. He lingers over scenes, painting vivid pictures of firesides, threadbare furniture and knotted floorboards, dust floating in the sunlight coursing through lead-framed window panes. Along with the way his characters are seen through many eyes, their own, their close friends and, occasionally those of minor characters, this attention to detail builds images in the reader's mind until you can almost see Lucinda suppressing her rage when patronised by her workers at the glass factory or Oscar battling manfully on the high seas against his overwhelming phobia.
In the end, the story is all about taking chances, betting your last shirt in the hope of attaining your dreams. Strange? Unseemly? Perhaps. I'll let Oscar have the last word...
'I cannot see', he said, 'that such a God, whose fundamental requirement of us is that we gamble our mortal souls, every second of our temporal existence...It is true! We must gamble every instant of our allotted span. We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence.' (p.337)*****
A few weeks ago, I posted on the first few stories from my Thomas Mann collection (although most people would probably not have realised that from the actual post itself), having taken a break half-way through from the unrelenting mental struggle of grappling with Mann's language and concepts. Imagine then my delight when, on returning for the return bout, I found that the remaining two stories were whimsical, humorous retellings of ancient Eastern tales (obviously, Mann mellowed a little with age).
The first, Die vertauschten Köpfe (The Transposed Heads), is set in India and tells the tale of two lifelong friends, Schridaman (an intelligent trader) and Nanda (a robust farmer and blacksmith). After the two friends secretly observe the beautiful Sita bathing in a river, Nanda helps to arrange a marriage for the lovelorn Schridaman with the object of his affection. Later, on a trip the three of them make to visit Sita's parents, events conspire to make the two men lose their heads - literally. Despite the intervention of a benign deity, who promises to help the two young men come back to life, this is the real start of the story. You see, in her confusion, the lovely Sita didn't really check whose head belonged to whose body...
What follows is a story inviting us to reflect on what makes us, well, us. As Sita struggles to decide who is her husband, Schridaman's clever head or his slightly flabby body, we get to make up our mind about whether it is our animal impulses or higher instincts which control our decisions. Don't worry, it's not as high-flown as it sounds; in fact, at times, it is slightly farcical and extremely amusing - a far cry from the painstakingly excruciating agonies felt by Von Ascherbach in Der Tod in Venedig.
The second story, Das Gesetz (The Law), is a retelling of part of the biblical story of Moses. While the gist of the story is fairly faithful, there are some variations from the original. One example is the portrayal of Moses as the son of an illegitimate tryst between an Egyptian princess and a Jewish waterbearer, with the baby being brought up by the father's family, and not the royal household. Rather than being the stern, superhuman Charlton-Heston-like depiction of the saviour of the Jews, Moses is shown as a rough, tongue-tied holy man, who relies on the practical nous of a few choice followers to convert God's will into achievable ideas. Joshua, a warlike lieutenant (who, it is suggested, was actually responsible for the tenth plague of Egypt), makes maps of the route to the Holy Land and considers deeply matters such as requisition of resources and the demographic growth required to usurp possible other claimants to Jewish settlements.
Anyone who takes the Bible literally will probably find little to enjoy in Mann's rather loose interpretation of Moses' travels, but for the rest of us, this new slant on an old story is a fascinating tale. The Jews swing between praising Moses to the skies for leading them from slavery and complaining darkly behind his back for having dragged them across the desert from their comfortable, safe Egyptian bondage. Even when he is in their good book, Moses can't catch a break as it is him his people start idolising - and not God...
In a week when the Australian Prime Minister finally became the victim of constant backbiting (and, admittedly, a bit of a messiah complex), the morals of Das Gesetz appear more relevant than ever. Whether you're leading the chosen ones across the Sinai Desert or attempting to stare down the mining industry over possible tax reforms, one thing is certain: it's very, very lonely at the top...