Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“The Inheritors” by William Golding.

“He always thought it his best book and many critics would agree”

“It was another masterpiece. It was a masterpiece as original, as compelling, as powerful – perhaps even more original, more powerful – than Lord of the Flies”

The opening chapter of “The Inheritors” introduces us to a small family of early hominids while they are challenged by a basic exercise of problem solving. The fallen tree that used to help them cross the river has disappeared and the swift stream of ice-cold melt water has become a hurdle in their move from their bleak winter quarters towards an idyllic summer cave.

Little do they know that crossing the river will seal their doom and just simply erase their species from the very face of the Earth.

By the time they have crossed the river, Golding has instilled within the reader a tremendous sense of empathy  for this small group. We understand from their awkward behavior and poor communication that the family party consists of an earlier, more primitive version of our-selves but still their minds resemble ours closely enough to understand them.

They laugh, play gentle jokes, they cherish their children and bury their dead. Although they are certainly not the brutish ogre – like beings described in the epigraph, we have to wait till near the end of the book, to understand how physically different they are from us.

We are in the beginning of spring and the small group consists of only eight people. There are the three men, Ma, Ha and Lok and four women of different ages: an older woman, a mother with a baby, there is FA and the child Loki. All are famished but happy that the season of plenty is approaching.

The already ill and exhausted MA falls in the water with dire consequences, as he soon dies coughing and shivering. The disappearance of their most experienced member makes the group extremely vulnerable just at the moment that strange new people are spotted in the woods. Ha, the leader tries to find out who they are and does not come back from his expedition.

In a few hours, the family has lost its two leading males.

While Lok investigates the location of the newcomers, his own encampment is attacked by the new people. The mother and the old woman are killed and thrown in the river and Loki and the baby are stolen. Only Fa has survived.

Golding narrates the story through the eyes of Lok, the inexperienced adolescent. His inexperience allows us to understand what is happening while he is not. This has a double effect. While we empathize with the childlike innocence of Lok, we recognize in the strangers characteristics and behavior of our own species.

If not for the “Mother of all spoilers” on the Faber & Faber paperback’s blurb, Golding’s cunningly literary device would have worked perfectly. Starting with an epigraph taken from H.G.Wells’ Outline of History he both gives away an explanation for the strange text the reader is about to discover and at the same time puts him on the wrong foot:

‘Says Sir Harry Johnston,…( describing Neanderthal man)…: “The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore…”’

Our heroes are gentle, innocent and childlike in their naivety, in tune with nature and their environment. They have no initial aggressive feelings towards the newcomers. They are not Ogres. They are not Monsters.

The 'new people' are quiet different. They show elements of early religious behavior (the antler headed stag – man echoing the pig head on the pole), they communicate easily; they have canoes to cross the water and are armed with bows and arrows. Even when they look at the others with fascination and fear, they themselves are a ruthless, savage, lustful bunch.

It takes some time to be acclimatized to Golding’s prose and to get into the flow of the writing. Everything is filtered through Lok's alien Weltanschauung and the reader has to be very attentive to the written word. It reminds me a bit of the opening chapters of Faulkner’s “Sound and Fury” where a similar problem of communication is elaborated.

The book, as such is a bold prose experiment. The heroes are after all pre-literate. How does a book made of words relate the thoughts of people who do not have a language? Critics are divided over how successfully Golding pulls this off but I think that even tough it is tedious at moments, he does it with brio.

It is unfair to criticize Golding for not being accurate within this paleontological setting and depicting his Neanderthal more like gorilla’s than the men they really were. Not only was that knowledge not yet uncovered but scientific accuracy is not the point in this novel. “The inheritors” is a fantasy, a dark one indeed, but still an artistic rendering of a fictional event. It is a revisionist version of pre-history, detailing the rise of violent civilization over gentler life forms. One should read the book as an allegory on the origins of violence, racism, imperialism and other evil byproducts of civilization.

Even as an allegory, the story bears strong emotions. The terrible ending, when Lok is alone, the last of his kind, and dies of grief, is the death of innocence. Arthur Koestler confessed it to be “the most moving scene, I have read for a long time”.

Understandably, William Golding describes our species in a most dark and evil way. Both “Lord of the Flies” and “The Inheritors” have after all been conceived within a decade only after the full horror and the atrocities of the Second World War were disclosed. Still a whole generation of survivors had to come to terms with what they had experienced in those terrible years.

I find that there is a systematic logic in the three first books of Golding. First he debunks the innocence of children. Savagery is inherent to our species. Then Golding states that evolution does not evolve from the barbaric to the civilized. Barbarity is a constant in Homo sapiens. Finally in Martin Pincher he looks for the motives or mechanisms behind this behavior and pinpoints one: Greed. Fear, hinted at in “the inheritors” would be one of the others.

As a conclusion, let’s go back to the title of the book.

It is a quote from the Bible: Matthew 5:5; this is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says, ‘blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,’

Golding boldly makes his statement in an irony: It is not the gentle submissive beings, showing patience and humility who have inherited the earth.

Quite on the contrary.

It is us.