Continent by Jim Crace

Ten years ago I went on a mini-tour of China. In Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian the tour guide asked us not to leave the hotel in the evening – she was afraid we’d get lost. When we reached Guilan, it was a different story. There was an evening market we might like to explore, she told us, and Guilan was small, impossible to get lost in, only 1 million people. I hail from a city with a population of less than 500k, so Guilan sounded plenty big enough to me…but I went to the market nevertheless.

I came across a calligrapher’s booth near the lakeside. Business was good; there was a queue forming. At first I watched from a distance but after a while I joined the queue along with the rest of the tourists, waiting my turn to reach the front, receiving a scrap of paper from the calligrapher’s assistant on which to write a name, handing back the paper-scrap to the assistant, who handed it to the calligrapher along with a fan. The calligrapher transcribed the name I’d written (ELEANOR, the name of my eldest niece) in Chinese lettering onto the fan. After he’d finished the calligrapher handed the fan back to his assistant, who handed me the fan and collected the money. The calligrapher never looked up from his desk that I can recall.

Is calligraphy an art or a craft? The old calligrapher in Sins and Virtues reflects that “They call my craft Art these days and pay great sums for it.” Ironically the elevation of his work to “Art”, his worldwide fame, leads to a “market…Supply and Demand”, and the calligrapher’s conclusion that the “quest for Meaning in Form belongs to an age long past.”

Sins and Virtues is the fourth of seven stories that make up Jim Crace’s Continent, which (per the blurb) is “a novel in seven stories”. The book opens with a quote from Pycletius about “a seventh continent…its business is trade and superstition.”

All seven stories are loosely linked by themes of trade and superstition – if that includes the broadest sense of corruption, a loss of innocence, a fall from grace. Talking Skull is about selling bogus ‘milk’ to newlyweds and the childless to aid “potency”. The World with One Eye Shut features a young man who is beaten and imprisoned for intervening between his sister and an army Corporal. Cross-country is about a race between a resentful village-man and a young outsider, a teacher. On Heat concerns a scientist’s expedition to a village deep in the forest where all the women get pregnant simultaneously. Electricity sees electrical power being installed into a town with unforeseen consequences. The Prospect from Silver Hill is abouta company agent whose mind unravels when he is posted alone to a remote place to prospect for precious metals and stones.

The stories are quirky and engaging. I struggle though to see Continent as a novel rather than a collection of short stories. For that reason I felt rather cheated (not what it said on the tin). The judges for the 1986 Whitbread Book Awards clearly felt differently given the book won the Whitbread First Novel prize in 1986.

Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try).

PS. If you’re thinking of reading Jim Crace I’d recommend Quarantine, which won the 1998 Whitbread Novel Award, or Being Dead. I reviewed Quarantine in my December blog.

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