Sunday, August 19, 2007

The power of stories in time of war

The recently announced long list for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, one of the world's foremost literary awards, includes several first-timers and seldom-heard-of names. One of them is Lloyd Jones, a writer in New Zealand whose work is little known outside his country. But with Mister Pip, he has been the recipient of much international success, and the Man Booker longlisting is the latest feather in his cap.

The novel is set during the civil war on the island of Bougainville, which ensued in the late 1980s following a blockade by the government of Papua New Guinea. At a time when most people have fled the island, a small community, all black, still exists amidst uncertain living conditions. There is, however, one couple that does not fit the traditional mold. They are the white Mr. Watts and his black wife, Grace Watts, a mysterious woman who left the island on a scholarship, met her husband in New Zealand and brought him back to her native Bougainville.

After the local school is left with no teachers, Mr. Watts takes it upon himself to teach the kids. The trouble is he does not have any material with him, save a battered copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. He begins reading chapters from the nineteenth century classic in class every day.

The story is narrated by Matilda, one of Mr. Watts' students, a precocious girl living with her mother on the island. Matilda's father has left the family to make a future for himself in Australia after a gang of local rebels disrupted the Panguna mine. This spawned the heavy-handed reprisal by Papua New Guinea and the formation of a rebel army.

The war is a perpetual noise in the background in this uplifting tale about the power of literature. As gunfire "merged with the background chorus of the grunting pigs and shrieking birds," the children sat in stunned silence, absorbing the adventures of Pip. To Matilda, Pip is the embodiment of her feelings and a friend she has never known. "I had learnt to enter the soul of another," she says. Enchanted by the fictional Pip, she carves his name in sand at the beach.

However, to Matilda's mother, Dolores, who has already lost a husband to "white ways," this subtle change in the daughter rings alarm bells. She decries the agnostic tenor of Mr. Watts' teachings and proclaims Pip to be the devil in disguise. Little are they aware that this name, written on the beach, is to irrevocably change their lives and destinies.

Mister Pip is an assured tribute to the remarkable ability of literature to see us through a lifetime of adversities and tribulations. If Lloyd Jones goes on win the Man Booker Prize, it would be a happy event indeed.

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From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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