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The Concert and La Belle Sauvage

22 November 2019

At first sight the two books I discuss here seem to have little in common, so perhaps it is mere coincidence that I happened to read them at about the same time that made me see several similarities between them. So here are my separate reviews, followed by some thoughts about them together.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials, though the third one, The Amber Spyglass was disappointing (my review here: Evangelising atheism: Philip Pullman | Notes from underground).

Then I found a shop with dozens of copies of the prequel, La Belle Sauvage going cheap — they’d clearly over-ordered in the expectation of a rush of demand, like the Harry Potter books, but it didn’t turn out like that. And if the demand was disappointing, so, to some extent, was the book.

The protagonist is eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, who loves to spend his free time paddling his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. He often paddles across the river to a convent of Calvinist nuns (don’t ask), who are given a rather mysterious baby, Lyra Belaqua, the later protagonist of His Dark Materials to look after. But others have an interest in this baby, and and clearly do not wish her well.

After prolonged heavy rains the river floods, and Malcolm, aided by fifteen-year-old Alice, the kitchen girl from his parents’ inn, rescues Lyra from the flood, and, swept away by the swollen river, decides to take her to her father’s house in Chelsea. The six of them (three children and their daemons) have various adventures, with dangers and narrow escapes, en route to London.

It’s not a bad story, quite exciting in parts, but after His Dark Materials it falls a bit flat. Pullman’s world-building seems to slip in a number of places. In His Dark Materials one of the attractive things is the different alternative worlds he creates, with greater or lesser divergences from our world. But in La Belle Sauvage he seems to have grown impatient with it, and the history and geography that Malcolm studies at school seem to be the history and geography of our world rather than of Lyra’s world in Northern Lights.

The differences in language are maintained in a perfunctory way, but without consistent explanation. There is an anbaric drill, but no anbaric torches — everyone uses lanterns. Then suddenly an anbaric torch appears, and one wonders why they didn’t use them earlier.

As in Lyra’s world they use “philosophical instruments”, but in Malcolm’s world they are used to achieve “scientific management of resources”. which pricks the bubble of illusion. We are back in Will’s (or our own) Oxford, only without telephones and with people having daemons.

Lyra’s Oxford in His Dark Materials seems to have separated from ours at about the time of the Renaissance and developed in a different way. Malcolm’s Oxford seems less consistent. The sinister church organisations seem Cromwellian, but most of the rest seems modern, with perhaps a few significant differences. The daemons of people are often non-European — lemurs, bushbabies and the like, but their ancestors never are, except perhaps in the case of the gyptians. An odd discrepancy, that.

The ConcertThe Concert by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read a couple of Ismail Kadare’s books before — see Chronicle in stone — book review | Khanya — but the others were set in the time before Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, who famously made it, for 27 years, the world’s only truly atheist county.

Albania was almost unique among communist countries in becoming increasingly isolated from the world, including other communist countries. It broke first from the USSR, but for a while maintained friendship with China, but eventually even that friendship dissolved, and during the 1970s Albania’s ties with China loosened and Hoxha came to regard the Chinese, like the Soviets, as “revisionists”.

This novel is set in that period, and shows the effects of the changing relationship with China on families that were mostly fairly close to the centres of power in Albania. Relations between the two countries cooled when Albania crtiticised the Chinese decision to invite US President Nixon to visit China in 1972, and by the time of Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 the break was almost complete. And now, 40 years later, we see China treating African countries in the same way as it treated Albania in the 1970s.

… everyone talked of how work had slowed down on many big construction sites, especially those building hydro-electric plants in the north. This was because of hold-ups in supplies of equipment from China. Freighters now took and unconscionably long time to reach their destination, and when they did arrive they might be carrying the wrong cargo. On two occasions ships had turned back without even entering Durres harbour. All this was said to be part of China’s famous “turn of the screw”. Cafes in Tirana were full of stories about this tactic: no one realized that one day the whole country would be its victim.

The “concert” of the title took place towards the end of this period, where the audience was far more important than the performers, and Albania, like the rest of the world, was watching to see who was invited and who was not, who turned up and who did not.

At the centre of the story is Silva Dibra, a civil servant like her husband Gjergj (whose job takes him on visits to China), their schoolgirl daughter Brikena, Silva’s brother Arian, an officer in a tank regiment who was expelled from the Party for disobeying an order, and her dead sister Ana. It also features several of her work colleagues and friends and associates of Ana. One of her sister’s associates was a writer, who also visited China, The life and work of Albanian writers and artists was restricted. As Kadare puts it:

…people reconciled themselves to the idea that it was going to be a dry autumn. Meanwhile all the other seasonal changes took place as usual: the leaves turned colour, the temperature dropped, the birds migrated. As usual too, painters flocked to headquarters of the Writers’ and Artists’ Union to get their annual permits to concentrate on autumnal themes.

In China, however, the Writers and Artist’s Union had been abolished altogether in the Great Cultural Revolutuon of 1966/67. According to the thought of Chairman Mao, the “new man” did not need art and literature, which were bourgeois by their very nature. Rather than painting autumnal themes, they should be planting and harvesting rice.

Tirana, Albania, 2000

Nevertheless I’m in two minds about the book. Kadare’s descriptions of the Albanian characters grabs me, perhaps because, having lived there for a month, I can picture the streets of Tirana, the beaches of Durres, and the steel factory at Elbasan, which he mentions. But I’m put off by the bits where he tries to describe the thoughts of Chairman Mao. They are racist thoughts, and I wonder if they are the thoughts of a white racist imagining the thoughts of a Chinese racist, or whether Chairman Mao ever did have any thoughts like that. But there is too much that suggests that they are what a white racist imagines a Chinese racist might think.

And in the book the Albanian characters express racist thoughts about the Chinese, as the Chinese do about the Albanians. Of course an author does not necessarily share the sentiments expressed by his characters. But when Kadare is describing the thoughts of Mao while alone in a cave, these are not mediated through a character in the story, but are described directly.

Some comparisons

Both books have descriptions of a surveillance society, with sinister secret or semi secret bodies organising spying on people.

In The Concert the body is Zhongnanhai, which actually exists as a building regarded as the seat of government of China, similar to “the Kremlin” or “the White House”. But in the novel it refers to a secret security agency responsible not to the Party or the government, but to Chairman Mao personally, and they organised for microphones to be distributed widely for such surveillance. That kind of surveillance is not unfamiliar to me; for some of my personal encounters with it, see here.

In La Belle Sauvage, however, such spying and secret arrests are arranged by the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD), the secret police of the “Magisterium”, the body that controls the Church in that particular world, which is, apart from a daemons and a few philosophical instruments much more like our world than Lyra’s world of Northern Lights, and it includes the League of St Alexander, an organisation of school children who are encouraged to spy on their parents and teachers.

Now it is possible that similar things may have existed in Cromwell’s England of the 17th century, or under some 15th-century Renaissance popes (Lyra’s world has that kind of atmosphere, but Malcolm’s is far more like 21st century England now). What Pullman is trying to suggest here is that Christians of the 20th and 21st centuries are the spies rather than the spied upon, and trying to smear Christians with the kind of activities that were actually practised by atheistic regimes against Christians.

What actually happened in Hoxha’s atheist Albania was that the teachers would ask the children what they had been eating at home. From their answers they could determine which families were observing Lent, or Easter or Ramadan, and this would be reported to the appropriate authorities. Pullman tried to create the impression that the victims of such actions in the last 70 years are actually the perpetrators, and that the perpetrators are the victims. If you want to know about the real modern-day “League of St Alexander”, I suggest that you read this: Alexander Schmorell – OrthodoxWiki.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    26 November 2019 9:02 am

    have you ever reviewed A Canticle for Liebowitz?

  2. 26 November 2019 11:23 am

    No, though I have mentioned it here: White writing, dark materials | Notes from underground.


  1. Theology, science, alternative history, literature | Notes from underground

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