Sunday, October 20, 2013

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Time is at the heart of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or perhaps not time, but the collective memory of communities, the passing of knowledge and beliefs and genes through generations. It is a complex novel with a simple belief at its core – that humanity lingers and our mythologies and histories and received beliefs are merely the residue of the human spirit passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, generation on generation on generation. The novel has three timeframes: the present day (the book was written in 1973 so even this contemporary strand has now gathered a historical resonance), Roman Britain and the English Civil War. In each strand, as you might expect from Alan Garner, that master of place and landscape, the location of the action is the same, his beloved and mystical Cheshire hills.

In particular, it focuses on Mow Cop, a place which has a strong pull for the characters in each strand. The girl kidnapped by the remnants of the Ninth Legion in the Roman section of the story calls it “the netherstone of the world” and suggests “the skymill turns on it to grind stars.” The epileptic Thomas in the Civil War strand intuits there is something about the hill and constantly watches it fearfully. “Are you more scared of Mow Cop than of the Irish [aggressors]?” he is asked. And in the contemporary strand we discover that the hill is topped by a folly castle, a round tower and arch “as if left from a great building, where no finished building could ever have been.” Each of the characters is ceaselessly drawn here and it is here their mortal adventures are played out. In the two historical strands, matters of life and death pertain; in the modern strand it is love that is dissected. There is no guarantee of happiness in our lives, and Garner explores the depth of human feeling and understanding in this quiet, understated novel of character.

One further element links the three strands, a paleolithic axe which is discovered and revered by each of the protagonists in turn. This axe is clearly a mystical element in some way: not simple magic, in a trite, shallow way, but invested with some particular power. Whether that power is genuinely resident in the artefact, or is simply a manifestation of the ideals and hopes of its owners, is a moot point. And, in truth, it doesn’t matter. Such is the mystery of our human connections through time and memory.

And this is the key to the strength of the novel. It does not seek to declaim any grand notion of being. It does not try to establish some spiritual core to existence. It does not claim humanity as part of some grand, interconnected plan. It simply tells us that we live and die, and that we are all connected, age to age, century to century, through the stories and histories that are passed down. It is a perfect, humanist appeal to the senses.

Albert Einstein is frequently misquoted as saying that “[r]eality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." It seems wholly improbable that a mind as great as Einstein’s would say this and, indeed, the actual quote is somewhat different. Writing about the death of a friend, he notes:

He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.
There is a tendency among some philosophers to pursue this argument to aggressively stark conclusions. The past does not exist, they say, because no-one exists for whom it was true. Just as the falling tree in the deserted forest makes no noise because there is no-one there to hear it, the lives and deaths of our forebears hundreds and thousands of years ago cannot be said to exist in any meaningful way because there is no witness. This may be a fine philosophical discussion, but it is patent nonsense. Ask anyone who has recently suffered a bereavement whether or not their loved one existed. Ask them to explain the harrowing of their hearts. This is what Red Shift seeks to explore and explain. The protagonists in the three strands are not related, they do not need to be; they are simply human beings playing out their own variations of the game of life, as all of us do, as all of us have done, as all of us will ever do. In that sense, there is no past, no present and no future, just – to use the Aborigine term – an “everywhen” in which the human drama is constantly played and replayed.

Red Shift is a masterful example of storytelling. It is told almost exclusively through dialogue and description is kept to a minimum. Exposition is almost non-existent, rendered redundant by the novel’s style. It does not concern itself with sending messages and, as a result, the message it conveys is powerful indeed.

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