Something rich and strange, David Groves

Stand Alone Stan, vol 2 of the quartet A Land Fit for Heroes
Phillip Mann,
Victor Gollancz, price not available

This is Phillip Mann’s seventh book of fiction, an imaginative and philosophically coherent body of work, spanning over a decade. Yet he has received scant critical notice in New Zealand.

Mann’s books are pigeon-holed as science fiction, which may unfortunately put off some readers, as it attracts others. All his novels before this quartet have been set in the future. Human nature and political structures being what they are, that future is apocalyptic. The action of the novels has taken place after “the Great Push” (the Paxwax volumes), “the Catastrophe” (Pioneers), or “the Wars of Knowledge and Ignorance” (Wulfsyarn). The scenarios of those stories appear the product of a deep pessimism about the immediate future of humankind, balanced by an instinctive, pig-headed optimism. (“…But there is an optimism in the human spirit too: an awareness that things can be better.” Wulfsyarn)

In A Land Fit for Heroes, the alternative world is not extrapolated forwards from now, but lies parallel to us. The introductory chapter of Stand Alone Stan is the same as that of volume 1, Escape to the Wild Wood, with just the ending altered, and acts as an incantatory welcome back into the world which:

is displaced from our own by a mere twelve seconds. But that short time is sufficient to make this world wholly different from our own while yet remaining, in some ways, quite familiar.

We need not have recourse to superstring theory to justify the possibility of an invisible, duplicate universe intersecting with our own. We know that all fiction is a visit to the Is-land and to Mirror City. It’s just that while most of our current novelists step twelve seconds to the right, into some sort of recognisable social reality, Mann takes twelve paces to the left, into the world of myth, fable and allegory once peopled by hippogryphs and houyhnhnms, and, since Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, pepped up with modern science and technology.

In A Land Fit For Heroes, the Romans never quit Britannia, and the city of Roma has remained the centre of a worldwide empire, in which history has ground to a halt. In the province of Britannia, Britons and some surviving Celt are allowed to live undisturbed in the “wild wood” outside the Roman centres. I take this to constitute the science fiction premise of the work. It is against all the law of imperialist history that an empire with an immense standing army and overwhelming technology should actually grant, rather than just promise, rangatiratanga, and “full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess” to a conquered population. I am more prepared perhaps than other readers to accept the premise and hop to the symbolic level. Roma and the wild wood are like two separate planets, and the sharp division between them brings clarity to the ethical debate enacted in the quartet.

Not all of Roma’s empire is a totally artificial environment enclosed in a sort of goldfish bowl; but that image of the battle-dome, established at the beginning of volume one, stays with us. Roma is not rooted in the earth; it is humanity de-natured. It has a fabulous technology but no theoretical science – it lacks critique, it lacks consciousness. It is thus locked into a permanent status quo, reaffirmed through brutal sports.

The image set up in opposition is not an alternative polis. However much Mann draws on his knowledge and admiration of Greek civilisation (and his fans will be looking to volume three to see if he can again sneak the Parthenon in somewhere), the memory of the British countryside tugs at him even more insistently. At the end of Pioneers Angelo and his extended family headed away from Aotearoa to Old Europe. It was not clear where exactly they landed – it was as though the author himself wanted to keep the place secret. In A Land Fit for Heroes Philip Mann, armed now with a great deal of experience as a novelist, and furnished with a deepened anti-imperial perspective, has chosen to revisit the landscape of his youth – Yorkshire.

It is four pages from the end of Stand Alone Stan that the new emperor, Lucius, a monstrous figure of cupiditas, announces the decision that is to trigger the denouement. Britannia, which has alone escaped the pestilence infecting sheep throughout the rest of the empire, will be totally deforested and turned into “the greatest sheep station on the face of the Earth”. With a jolt we find ourself facing a version of our own history – the massive deforestation and burnoffs (see Rollo Amold’s New Zealand’s Burning), the erosion, the carcasses and bales sent to Mother England. But the trees to be burnt are not totara, rata, rimu, matai … The nostalgic litany runs as follows:

“I want your precious oak and ash and beech and elm burned and felled. I want your blackthorn and rowan and holly and willow rooted out.”

Mann has opted for a very British feelto his wood, and resists being lured into Celtic twilight. In volume three I expect Mann to ransack the runes, and unleash ancient and arcane forces to defend the wild wood. The shaman Lyf will presumably reemerge. But Lem and Sulla, the two representatives of faery, are nuggety and fearsome, not fey, and the giant Drummer is awesome. Mann tempers magic with a robust British commonsense and humour, and he enjoys bringing his characters down to earth with a bump.

The battle-dome and the wild wood represent then the poles around which the whole conception revolves. The narrative space is filled with the startling visual detail we have come to expect from this novelist. Mann’s imaginative power and creative energy never cease to amaze. After the ice was broken in The Eye of the Queen, the two extraordinary Paxwax volumes were like a dam bursting. Pioneers and Wulfsyarn are superior because of their greater concentration – they no longer presume to tell the entire history of the whole universe – but the Paxwax epic remains an astonishing achievement. We can believe Mann when, in a Listener interview, he claimed to have such a vivid imagination that he can see and smell the alien beings who visit his room and that he has to tell them to go into the garden and leave him alone.

There is no slackening of this visionary power in A Land Fit for Heroes or of a power of description to match it. In volume one there is a fantastic opening sequence of the Roman games that take place in the Battle Dome and a Roman stormtrooper raid on the British village where three fugitives – Angus and Miranda the Britons, and Viti the Roman – have holed up. In Stand Alone Stan the action is not quite on that scale, except for the tour de force of Miranda’s visit to the world of faery (begun with another of Mann’s entries into a cave), for the main interest lies elsewhere. It is after all not dazzlingly precise descriptions of different worlds which can alone hold our attention – rather, it is the sharply visualised characters who move through these landscapes. In the final analysis, the descriptive elements tend to fall away and become scenery for the clash of character, and the rhythmical shaping of a story with epic sweep reveals the expertise of a theatre director unrivalled (at least from a Wellington perspective) in large-cast drama, Shakespeare or Brecht.

The drama of the characters grips us, both when they are involved in exterior action, or when that slows almost to a stop and the narrative focuses on inner change. All Mann’s novels tell of one or more characters’ arduous process of self-knowledge, figured as a journey through imaginary worlds. His heroes have to obey the harsh Apollonian imperative of “Know thyself”. In Mann’s first book, The Eye of the Queen, it was for a long time by no means clear why the Earthlings were visiting Pe-Ellia. But the book’s central image was the sloughing-off of old skins. It is possible to change yourself and thereby change the society in which you live – that is the optimistic creed that underlies Mann’s books, gives them momentum, and is the core of their political philosophy.

Even in volume one of this quartet, Escape to the Wild Wood, Mann devoted considerable time and space to show the three protagonists getting used to a different rhythm of life in the wild wood. That emphasis, on inner change and growth, is intensified in Stand Alone Stan. The same period of time is folded over itself, to allow us to follow the spiritual paths of Viti – now renamed Coll – Angus and Miranda. Remarkably, the dynamic of the narrative is sustained in this volume, which corresponds to that pastoral interlude in chivalric epic before the champion returns to the tragic world of action. We are drawn along by the expectation that all hell will break loose in volume three, into which Mann must pack the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

The three heroes begin volume two by travelling to Stand Alone Stan, a centre of British learning and healing. “Stand Alone Stan” turns out in fact to be the name of a giant standing stone. It is a nice coincidence that Old English stan is a homonym of the common-or-garden name Stan which gives the place a homely, working-class feel. As for the positioning and function of the stone, we are used to such objects in Mann’s worlds – focuses of invisible energy, stones (also very ancient trees), that contain and transmit power. At this place, watched over by the stone, each of the protagonists undergoes a hard initiation.

So far, Viti has had to suffer one humiliation after another. Worsted by a woman commander in the battle at the beginning of volume one (despite his expert deployment of his secret weapon, the shuriken), he mucks out the pigs and cows in the British village, then hides in a dunny. In this second volume, he becomes an apathetic hermit, who even botches his attempted suicide. He can’t sink any lower. He, however, is the man of destiny – though that destiny may be, like Pawl Paxwax’s, to surrender power. Mann doesn’t doubt for an instant that, in any structure of situation, power corrupts. Viti’s re-naming as Coll is an important step away from his earlier self as scion of the house of Ulysses; but still eating away at him like a cancer is his guilt for his rape of Miranda.

Readers familiar with the moral co-ordinates of Mann’s fiction will be worried to see Angus fly off at the end of Stand Alone Stan, pumped up with anger, a fully-fledged terrorist. It was Angus who more than the others had been attracted to the centre of enlightenment, through his contact in volume one with the Roman renegade, Roscius from whom Angus had obtained a copy of Jane Sara Mill’s On Liberty. At Stand Alone Stan, Angus joins Roscius’s academy, supporting himself with a student job as technical handyman. In the middle of volume two there is a Socratic debate on the nature of fascism. Impatient that Roscius is content to explain the world, not change it, Angus sets out on his path of revolutionary violence by murdering the fascist Pozzo (ah, the fun of the names in all of Mann’s novels!). Is it ethically defensible to kill anyone, even a fascist, with your own bare hands? From the earlier works I suspect that the author’s answer to this question is no. It is evident, however, that Mann has a particular affection for Angus. A lot of the book’s humour surrounds him: he is a blunderer, but he asks the right questions. Maybe he is not yet permanently locked into his role of terrorist.

And the Shakespearean-named Miranda? Her fate is to be chosen as the new guide of a women’s community devoted to healing, and it takes her deep into the realm of witchcraft. Invested with spiritual power, she leaves her two mere male companions far behind and is obviously not going to be wife or mother to either, although she’s got fresh trouble on her hands with Lem and Sulla. In the struggle to come she will wield frightening powers – but as healer or destroyer?

In their studies in the various colleges (so-to-speak) of this peculiar university at Stand Alone Stan, our three heroes have been oddly celibate. The education has not been quite single-sex – Angus has substituted a new woman co-student (Perol) as well as a male comrade for his old associates Miranda and Coll. The author likes threesomes. But mostly, Coll, Angus and Miranda have learnt, appropriately enough, to stand alone. Despite Mann’s theoretical emphasis on the need, in achieving integration, to feel at home in the body, there has always been a curious awkwardness, reticence or inhibition surrounding sex in his books – ever since that moment when, in The Eye of the Queen, Thorndyke took his clothes off in order to provoke some reaction, but himself ended up shocked and embarrassed. The sexless Pe-Ellians were all “he”. Many of the women in the earlier volumes died, or cleared out. To the reader, the absent women come to symbolise the feminine sides of the male protagonists, which they are confusedly searching for.

I hope that, with his emphasis on the male characters, Mann doesn’t automatically forfeit 51% (or is it 53%?) of his potential readership. A hostile and uncomprehending review of Escape to the Wild Wood in The Listener makes one wonder whether his fiction might not constitute a particularly strong example of “men’s writing”. The main focus is on father-son, brother and male comrade relationships. In the first Paxwax volume, there was a remarkable absence of mothers, whereas both Pawl and Laurel’s fathers were quite prominent. The mothering figures in A Land Fit for Heroes have a limited role. Bella, the innkeeper, and Meg, the guide of the hospital when Miranda first joins it, are important, but soon fade from the action. Much greater power is invested in the various father figures, and in Gywydion who is like the elder brother that Coll and Angus never had. The two male protagonists appear, then, as orphaned only sons in search of a spiritual father. The link between Coll and Marcus Ulysses is of course pivotal, because it allows the narrative to swing, in Shakespearean fashion, between the private individuation of the heroes, and the broad canvas of politics.

If we are to follow the signpost of the quartet’s title, the central ideological question concerns the definition of heroes, and what sort of land they might rightfully inherit. The title phrase harks back to a speech by Lloyd George; it gathered irony in the dark years of unemployment and fascism which followed the war that was supposed to end all wars. Just what sort of hero the woman Miranda will turn out to be remains to be seen; but as regards the men, we know the problem from previous books. Laurel in The Fall of Families told us that all men should be “bright as fire, gentle as water, sound as earth and merry as the good air”; the question is, what happens to such a man when he enters the arena of history?

All the male protagonists in this and the previous books are at some stage killers. They all have a primitive streak, are all metaphorically armed, as it were, with a residual claw; they are not christian and kind, but pagan and wild; they seem fated to kill or at least damage the thing they love. Anger radiates out from earth and contaminates the universe. Even so, the energy of anger seems better than effete, inbred quietism. Humanity is that peculiar and tragic race able to love and hate at the same time. This is the knot which Mann constantly (in this quartet, at greater length than ever) seeks to unravel.

Mann breaks down his male heroes and makes them face their vanity and violence, and the violence of the society with which they are initially in symbiosis. The relation between politics and ethics is central to Mann’s work, for he is a rarity in New Zealand, an intensely political novelist. He is passionate about ideas and impatient of trivia. His novels contain a strong didactic element, but he now has at his disposal various strategies for tackling the life-and-death, good-and-evil questions which engage him. That of entrusting the narration, in Pioneers and Wulfsyarn, to created beings who were “almost human but not quite” was a very successful manoeuvre. It allowed the author to comment emphatically but indirectly on the contradictions and stupidities of humankind. In A Land Fit for Heroes Mann eschews the mediating voice of such bemused narrative translators or scribes and returns to the epic voice of the Paxwax volumes, but he successfully funnels his convictions into action and debate. There is a touch of The Magic Mountain to this second volume of the quartet.

I learn from the best extended interview with Phillip Mann, published in Phlogiston, that a New Zealand publisher turned down Mann’s first novel on the grounds “that New Zealand was not yet ready for a work of ‘speculative philosophy'”. I believe that fiction’s first requirement is brilliantly satisfied: Mann is drawn to moralising, but more often his work is thrilling and beautiful. He has found a means, through the genre of science fiction, of bringing together his reason and his creative dreaming and of transmogrifying an experience of exile, wide travel and cultural contact, university teaching, political engagement, work in the theatre, voracious eclectic reading, into something rich and strange. What I mean is: Buck up Gollancz, where are volumes three and four?

 

David Groves lectures in Italian at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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