I used to find myself saying, I can’t imagine. But, I’ve since found out, you can – it’s just a case of wanting to.
What this character is talking about is empathy – and empathy, the having or not having it, is for me a major theme of New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ latest novel, Hand me down world. The novel is chock-full of characters who vary in their ability to empathise or not with other humans, to behave altruistically or selfishly towards others, to treat others with the dignity that all humans deserve or as nobodies to be ignored (or worse). These are not, in the real world, absolute alternatives but continuums along which we all position ourselves when relating to others. I think this positioning is one of the fundamental challenges of being human, and Lloyd Jones explores it in a novel which got me in from the get-go. In other words, I loved it.
This is a novel with a simple plot but a complex narrative. The plot concerns a young, poor African woman, a hotel worker, who leaves Africa using human-traffickers to find her son in Berlin. Why she does this is a shocking story revealed in the first chapter. The book follows her journey until its inevitable but not totally predictable conclusion.
What is particularly interesting about the book is how Jones has chosen to tell the story. It is divided into five parts:
1. What they said
The first two parts comprise 13 chapters, each named for the narrator telling that part of the story. All but one of the narrators are first person and they chronicle their experience with the woman (whom we come to know as Ines) as she journeys to and finally arrives in Berlin. The third person narrator is “The inspector”. Why he is third person initially mystified me, but it all becomes clear when he reappears in Ines’ part. As I was reading these early chapters, I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Chronicle of a death foretold because they sounded like witness statements (and that, in fact, is what we later discover they are). This is not, though, a whodunnit, any more than Marquez’s book is, although a death does occur. Intrigued? You should be.
Anyhow, it is in these early chapters that the “empathy” theme starts to play out as it is in them that we hear how Ines gets from Africa, via Italy, to Berlin. She is “helped” by a number of people including a truck driver, snail collector, an alpine hunter, a chess player and a film researcher. Some of these people help her expecting nothing, some help her only if she gives something in return (and I’m sure you can guess what that might be), some help her but would like something in return, some are unsure whether to help her or not, and so on. It certainly makes you wonder what you would do, how far out of your way you would go.
Suffice it to say, she makes it to Berlin, manages to find a job, and starts searching for her son. But, I won’t talk more on that, so you can discover for yourself how her story plays out. What I will talk about instead are some of the other features of the book that make it such an interesting read.
Several metaphors run through the novel, but they never feel overworked. One that I particularly liked concerns phantoms/ghosts. Lloyd uses them to describe the marginalised or dispossessed. The pastor (who better to talk about ghosts?) speaks of ghosts in a number of contexts, including:
The ghost remains a spectre, no more than a possibility. Something to be afraid of. A manifestation of fear, such as the opposition parties in each and every undemocratic regime in Africa.
The other ghosts – the real ghosts if I may call them that – are simply those whom we choose not to see.
Ines, of course, is one of these – and later, when she considers stealing her son, she talks of teaching him “to turn himself into a ghost”. Another motif that runs through the book is that of versions and lies. Most of the early narrators are not exactly reliable, several people do not go by their own name and there are references to things being transformed (such as snails which can change gender and lungfish which can live in and out of water). When Defoe describes the lungfish (below) we see its reference to the way people change, to how we can transform (for good) or dissemble (for ill, such as the father of Ines’ baby):
Now he arrived at the question that interested him. At which point does it become the one thing and cease to be the other? In becoming that new thing how much does it retain of the other?
One of the little side stories in this multilayered novel concerns the old blind man Ralf in whose household Ines finds work. We learn from Ralf’s ex-wife, Hannah, that after her gentle, kind father-in-law had died they found a photograph that revealed his secret past as a photographer of atrocities during the Nazi regime. Ralf’s inability to come to terms with his father’s contradictory, secret past brings about the breakdown of his marriage. Meanwhile, Ines lies, steals and pretends in order to achieve her goal of developing a relationship with her son:
I had to see him. And that need turned me into someone with no heart or conscience. I didn’t care how the money was earnt.
It is difficult in fact to know who the real Ines is … but she is a wounded soul. Who are we to judge? Throughout the novel, in fact, Jones confronts us with imperfect people and challenges us to consider both them and their circumstances. How far can, should, our empathy extend? Uncomfortable questions but ones we must face.
During Ines’ story she says “I was shown more kindness than abuse” which reminded me of Rieux’s statement at the end of The plague that “there are more things to admire in men to despise”. I like to think they’re right but, with Camus and Jones, I also know that we need books like this to remind us that we still have a way to go …
Lisa at ANZLitlovers also enjoyed this book.
Hand me down world
Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2010