by Jim Crace
Reviewed by CBR Editor
Jim Crace’s Continent is a world outside of ours that feels so much more real than what is often passed off as the ‘real world’ in fiction’s unreliable mirror. It does this in that way that sometimes we go outside of what we know -far outside- to understand our universe, to understand ourselves. This is not such an unreal place, really, this continent he’s wrought. There are the same sorts of people on all seven continents of our own world (and the number seven, unsurprisingly, plays a key role in the architecture of this book) with the same flaws and the same mystifying behaviors as those in Crace’s stories. Some have no names, just: the company agent, the calligrapher, the teacher. Other names sound strange to our ears; Awni. Lowdo. The landscapes are spectacular and mundane all at once. There’s a parallelism in the author’s world-building, between what we are shown and what we as readers project it onto in our subconscious mind. What is this bizarre domain? Are we meant to understand it, or is it too profound? Is it our own, turned on its head? While the motivations of any author may not always be obvious, we get this much: Crace is a master storyteller, and in Continent he weaves tales of heartbreaking familiarity.
What a choice it was, and what a risk, for the author to make his primary
characters no more than human, rather than heroic or even pleasant.
Some have compared his work to Coetzee or Naipul, and have used words like “fantasy” to describe what he writes. If we stretch the definition of fantasy to fit all that is not directly creditable to the specifics of our reality then, okay, this is fantasy. For this reader, however, fantasy is not a big enough word. Fantasy implies impossibility, or the invention of mechanisms that may yet reflect our reality but deliver it someplace else. Fantasy tells a different kind of story. Simply because our continents do not contain the places named in this book does not make the stories fantastical, only fictional. These people are us. Awni’s fawning behavior or the calligrapher’s rigid dedication to his dying art are not archetypes but genuine character portraits. Lowdo is the prodigal son, the young man gone to the big city to make his fortune, to bring that metropolitan crusade back home, with much the same deluded sense of purpose as Awni’s madness to wire his entire town with the new miracle of electricity. The company agent seems to lose his mind (and maybe he does) but the character convinces us to at least consider that it is he who is regaining his mind, while the others -those who would save him- are ignorant, imprisoned in the banality of routine.
There are strands of consistency from one story to the next, perhaps the most obvious of which is the pathos of a vanishing world. Each story centers around one character, someone possessed of a talent that is almost extinct (calligraphy) or of places that are losing their identity before the irresistibility of progress, but Crace isn’t trying to push a theme here, necessarily: in story III: Cross-Country, age-old traditions and provincial pride, almost buffoonish, are stripped of their veneer by a crafty outsider, a school teacher with quick legs and an even quicker mind. Just another means of showing the inevitable push of time against tradition. Not all answers are easy, the narrative implies.
Perhaps most interesting to this reader was Crace’s choice of characters, his protagonists. He reminds us that we don’t have to like the main characters in a story, and we certainly don’t have to cheer for them…or boo them…to be fascinated by them. In the seven stories of Continent these are not particularly likeable characters. On the other hand, few if any are scoundrels, and the more sinister ones are purposefully kept two dimensional. What a choice it was, and what a risk, for the author to make his primary characters no more than human, rather than heroic or even pleasant. The final story, the story of a company agent, evokes perhaps the bravest and most desperate character, but since he might be barking mad we can’t quite get on board with him as someone to ‘root for.’ So, who are they, if not gallant or dastardly? They are genuine people in a made-up world. Who they are doesn’t much matter in these stories, it’s what they do that matters. These are characters without character. People without faces. A world without anything recognizable in it, except that it’s exactly like our own.
Continent, by Jim Crace Published by Harper-Collins 140pp