Friday, 5 September 2014

Mr B's Reading Year, Four: 'it was prophesied I would live to see one hundred'

Having tried and failed to read Michel Deon's The Foundling Boy (sorry, Mr B's, I think it's the books-in-translation thing again…) I struck gold - or more appropriately, oil - with Philipp Meyer's The Son. This is by far my favourite of the Reading Year books I've read so far, and it genuinely is a novel that I might not have discovered on my own. I've been falling badly behind with my Reading Year books due to writing up my thesis, and so I now have a stack waiting to be read, but I'm trying to read them in order, rather than cherry-picking the ones that look most inviting. I'm glad I did this, because otherwise I might not have got round to The Son for a long time - while I did like the look of it when it arrived, it's a hefty undertaking, with almost six hundred closely-printed pages chronicling five generations of a Texan family, from the early nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. However, it's absolutely worth the investment.

Eli McCullough, known as 'the Colonel' by his descendants, is at the centre of this story; after being kidnapped by Comanches at the age of thirteen in 1849, he builds up enormous landholdings after being returned to 'civilisation'. In their turn, his descendants oppress the local Mexican landowners who also hold plantations on what was once Native American land. His son, Peter, expresses moral qualms about the savagery of his family, but seems incapable of acting upon them; his narrative, related in diary format, reads like one long line of excuses for his inaction. Eventually, he comes face to face with a victim of the McCulloughs; Maria Garcia, one of the few survivors of a massacre at her family's casa mayor, instigated by Peter's family. Maria tells him a story about her great-uncle, Arturo, who met a Coahuiltecan in 1836, the year of Eli's birth. This man claimed to be the last of his people, who were 'older than the Greeks and Romans… The Spanish appeared and then the Apaches, who continued the work of the Spanish, and then the Comanches, who continued the work of the Apaches.' Eli McCullough, born the year this story was told, will continue this sequence by wiping out the Comanches in this turn to establish a white empire. Arturo's story illustrates one of the central themes of The Son, made almost too obvious by its epigraph from Gibbon and its final image of the chief of a Lipan tribe: 'in his shield, stuffed between the layers, was Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.' Brutality is dealt out by all the succeeding conquerors, as they fight over the same acres of land.

The Son, however, is more than a convincing and sobering historical reflection. It's also a great piece of storytelling. In this context, I have to admit that Eli's chapters were the highlight of the book. Eli is in many ways a thoroughly deplorable character, but he's a marvellous narrator. While a cliched novel would have chosen a more reflective man to place at the centre of this horrific story, Eli's brother, Martin, who might have filled that role - Eli tells us that 'he had a weakness for books and poetry' - meets a grisly end early in the story. Martin's pronouncements as he is dying - 'It is the fate of a man like myself to be misunderstood. That's Goethe, in case you were wondering' - are totally alien in the world that Meyer presents. Eli is the natural survivor, able to adapt to the Comanche way of life, and he is focused solely on fighting and sex. This refreshing turn from the cerebral persists throughout the novel - Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeannie, is single-minded about losing her virginity, and it is only after losing her husband that she forces herself to engage with the data of oil drilling. Peter's narrative, placed alongside these two others, is not as strong, in my opinion; Peter seems both morally and literally weak, compared to his father and granddaughter, and I'm not convinced that the diary format helps matters. I felt distanced from Peter in a way I did not from our other two narrators; and Eli, remarkably long-lived, persists into his great-granddaughter's story, drinking mint juleps in the sun.

Despite the horror that this novel contains, it somehow remains an enjoyable, and not merely a worthwhile read. The reality of the events it describes is never lost - Meyer notes in his foreword that 'the Comanche people suffered a 98 percent population loss during the middle period of the nineteenth century' - but it is somehow readable, rather than too terrible to engage with. To explain this, I think I'd have to return to Eli. His character becomes a literal relic of the Comanche ascendancy as he witnesses his adopted tribe die around him, and he also symbolises the forces that destroyed them when he becomes a Ranger. Yet, his idiosyncratic narration and foolhardy attitude to life puts a human face to these atrocities. It's the creation of such a convincing pivot for the novel as a whole that makes The Son succeed. Thanks, Mr B's, for such an excellent Reading Year selection.