Thursday, 18 August 2011
The Good Earth
A E Housman's poem that gives James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover its name could just as easily provide an epigraph for this.
"Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep."
This is a sweeping tale set in China, almost a fable, although underpinned with startling pictures of reality. It tells of a rural family and their struggles to survive and even prosper through good times and bad. It brought to mind a mixture of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, although not quite as political as the first nor tragic as the second.
At times seeming to be set in time immemorial it is also at times startlingly modern. The central character is Wang Lung, a peasant farmer who lives with his aging father. He marries O'Lan, a slave from a rich household who with quiet industry helps Wang to prosper. The life they live is spartan - subsistence agriculture with little time for anything else. Indeed anything that falls outside the daily routine is seen as dangerous. "Then there was always distrust of that which one did not know and understand. It is not well for a man to know more than is necessary for his daily living."
Life lived so close to the edge leads to a reliance on the spirits, who are everywhere, and they are often jealous and vindictive. Therefore one has to be careful not to rouse their anger or jealousy.
"It seemed to him as he walked into the sharp sunshine of the dusty street that there was never a man so filled with good fortune as he.
He thought of this at first with joy and then with a pang of fear. It did not do in this life to be too fortunate."
The lives of the rich seem as far from the lives of the poor as do the gods. When Wang Lung goes to the house of the local landowner to collect the slave who is to be his wife he is terrified. He is embarrassed and ashamed and doesn't know how to behave. His shame and his awe serves to create a link between him and these rich landowners, and it awakens ambition in his heart which leads to him buying some of their land. Even when famine strikes and he has to leave he feels the power of the land - "But he looked across the fields at the small figures of the men receding and he muttered over and over, 'At least I have the land - I have the land.'" This is a sentiment familiar to any Irish person, and pervades the work of writers like Patrick Kavanagh and John B Keane. The Good Earth of the title is like a power source for Wang Lung - standing on it and working it recharge his batteries when they run low.
When Wang and family leave the land to go to the city that the book seems shockingly modern. It is not just that they take a train, which to them is as a mythical beast. The movement of people from the country to the city is still ongoing, and is perhaps the most important historical change of the last hundred years or so. The slum in which Wang finds himself and his family feels like something one finds replicated in documentaries today. A shelter improvised from mats is home and days are spent with the family begging while Wang slaves as a rickshaw driver, with the earnings just enough to keep them alive. "Men labored all day at the baking of breads and cakes for the rich and children labored from dawn to midnight and slept all greasy and grimed as they were upon rough pallets on the floor and staggered to the ovens next day, and there was not money enough given them to buy a piece of the rich breads they made for others."
The birth pangs of communism are intimated and the reasons that it was so attractive are also outlined. "'The hearts of these rich are hard like the hearts of the gods. They have still rice to eat and from the rice they do not eat they are still making wine, while we starve.'" Wang and his class have little attachment to the rich or to the wider society of the city. "He lived in the rich city as a rat in a rich man's house that is fed on scraps thrown away, and hides here and there and is never a part of the real life of the house." "Day by day beneath the opulence of this city Wang Lung lived in the foundations of poverty upon which it was laid."
Wars rumble, and it is whispered that when the rich get too rich the poor will have their day. The wheel of fortune continues to spin and no matter how high you go you must always remember that you are but a brief spin from the bottom.
We also find the danger of desire. Where do we draw a line and say 'It is enough.' Is it human nature to always want more? "It was as though a man, dying of thirst, drank the salt water of the sea which, though it is water, yet dries his blood into thirst and yet greater thirst so that in the end he dies, maddened by his very drinking."
This is an epic tale told straightforward. I will probably chase down the two books that follow this one. A good read.