The Limping Man
The Limping Man is the final volume of Maurice Gee’s Salt trilogy for teenagers. The trilogy portrays a grim city of a wrecked civilisation whose dictator is determined to destroy the Utopia established at the end of Salt, the first volume.
Following the heroes in Salt, and Gool, the second volume, in The Limping Man Hana and Ben have to acquire heroic skills and, with help, annihilate the evil city. They are a pair of teenagers who, faced with the destruction of their personal world, learn to survive on long journeys in the wild and in the mountains. They develop warrior skills and learn the crucial secrets of survival in forests and at sea. They can make fire, heal wounds with plants, build and weave from natural materials with a knife as the only tool.
To become fully powerful they must also acquire knowledge and understanding from story and from past glory (such as a mosaic uncovered in ‘city’ ruins), which shows them “How it was and how it can be again.” Telepathic speech – shared across humans, the peace-loving Dwellers, animals and the silent jungle people – can be used to call upon the great “power” for a common cause.
This silent communication with humans spreads. Hana can talk and plan with a wild hawk, who brings her meat when she is starving and warns her of hostile soldiers; Ben learns his family history by reading Lo’s mind; Lo can speak to and live with the unseen people of the jungle; Dwellers of the Sea and Forest can command animal co-operation in order to kill or disable an enemy. Gee adds to a tight picture of “oneness with nature” through this mechanism, a viewpoint of equal participation for all sentient beings including humans.
Then is the story an adventure? Yes, there is suspense and surprise as the group of teenagers with their telepathic communication evade armed bands hunting for escapees on the journey to the public square of the city. The opening scenes show Hana escaping the city as she observes the preparation for the burning of “witches” (including her mother’s body), and the drowning of their male partners. This is a routine ceremony at the city, organised by the dictator, the Limping Man, and this is where, eventually, the final battle will occur.
However, a number of factors detract from the sense of adventure and give the novel a rather subdued tone. The predominance of telepathic and visual communication, as opposed to direct speech, has the effect of softening the story development. Much of the action is written in a passive reporting style, and the dialogue strand is softened because the unspoken voices appear to report at a distance. It is as if the reader is being prevented from engaging with the characters: the universal force for good is allowed precedence over personality. But young readers, who often find such “magic” or spiritual elements fascinating, may find the novel as compelling as is Hana’s relationship with Hawk.
The dreamy effect is augmented by Gee’s firm placement of historical knowledge to underpin each hero’s wisdom. Lo views the ancient mosaic and gains strength to battle spiritually for the future of humankind. He doesn’t explain or discuss. He insists on being alone, is able to absorb the beautiful pictures, and gleans a story from each figure. It isn’t quite clear but we understand that he absorbs the generous humanity, “the good”, of an ancient civilisation.
Gee’s language is simple: “Look for a woman who is able to feed the baby at her breast”; “Each part of this land had its own hawk.” It’s almost an avoidance of the more difficult words territory and breastfeeding. This severe simplicity contributes to the unspoken expectation that human interaction will be simple and peaceful, even in revenge adventure stories. It is reminiscent of mythical storytelling and adds a solemnity to the book.
The silent metaphoric thread serves the same function as the deliberate language. It flattens and calms the action reports. Readers turn their attention away from individual quirks, and engage in the memories of the past, the family histories.
Through every decision there is a strong conviction of moral right – these teenagers, set on destroying a whole city administration and its dictator, are not unlike a composite “Pilgrim” in their steadfast conviction of strength and virtue. They are willing to, and do, risk their lives. They are united in their implacable criticism of a cruel, grim society and the need to destroy it, yet they hold firm to the Utopia they come from and expect to return to.
This hints at the genre of “critical dystopia” Gee is exploiting. Some scholars of such texts for teenagers argue that metaphorical meaning alongside and within a dystopian story enables a richer understanding of the narrative workings. A strong female protagonist, a spiritual element, dreams, a special attention to history and memory are all present in The Limping Man. All these elements, woven through the novel, allow the reader to keep hopeful, even when the characters are criticising and fighting evil, and all contribute to the enigmatic ending.
Is this a political novel? Does the spirituality – the power of the silent voice – prevent the reader from relating the story to present-day life? It is clear Gee is concerned about, and warning us of the dangers of, misused power. He is economical – older readers will note the use of the word cleansing for killing the city’s under-classes.
The politics are there in Gee’s consistent themes of partnering (almost all the teenagers “come in pairs”), the value of the family, the need for a simple agricultural life. The book invokes a strong ethic of caring for the environment, not solely for humans and their physical needs, but for all. The jungle people leave such a small footprint that they are invisible and are spoken of reverentially.
Our heroes act with minimal violence, even in battle. But there are contradictions between the idea of peace and non-violence in an individual and social sense, and the need to kill an evil enemy. The hero’s task may involve destroying a “bad” life to preserve a “good” one. This is referred to but not dwelt on – never really teased out. Hana intends to kill the Limping Man but it is her empathetic powers to help Hawk which are effective – not the physical knife attack. The shared community’s silent voice argues for non-violence at every point.
The view that mankind gains some sort of peace and happiness only by engaging in a very simple rural life is partnered with an anarchic conviction that efforts to rule, govern or organise are doomed to end in cruelty and exploitation of the less powerful.
What is Gee saying here? Is there a future? Are there possibilities of a “good life” in the rural retreat? Will it become overpopulated? The true match here may be with a reflective reader, but the adventure story is there for everyone. While Utopia is not spelled out, Gee’s resolution shows Hana, Ben and Hawk at peace in a rural setting.
Jill Holt is an Auckland reviewer.