A map dispassionately establishes, in quantifiable terms, the geography of a place, it fixes the contours of a landscape but how does one go beyond the given to unearth the histories, the stories, the peoples of a land? Jim Crace, on his new novel Harvest, on maps and more. By Sayan Bhattacharya.
First of all, what is so great about an Atlas?
Ah! Well an atlas is an, I love this question, good question. When I was a kid I used to open them up and I would have journeys, I would look at places and there would be different colours on the maps, you know how it was in the early colonial days, all those pink bits were British and the green bit were French and you know the bits which didn’t have those colonial colours were independent places. So there were all those things going on, there were these places whose names you couldn’t pronounce, you could see these vast distances, you could see everything divided into colours, and it was like a travel lesson, it was like a narrative, that you could imagine story lines, you could imagine encounters, you could imagine fearful beings. So it was a thousand novels without any words. And every one of those novels was written by you, and that still works for me whenever I look at a map. Looking at a map is not a source of information only for me, it’s a source of stories, even now when I am 68 years old, even now when I look at a map I can just feel the excitement of storytelling and the future coming dawning to me. Let me talk about something storytelling, what is storytelling? No other animal does it, only human kind does it. And storytelling has two forms, re-inventing the past, and imagining the future. So when you are looking at an atlas you are doing one of those things. You are imagining the future, you are imagining future travel, future adventures, future encounters, future friends, future dangers, future deaths, future illnesses, future meals, future laughs. Okay?
I came across this work where a person is working with an atlas, but atlas of the google map kind. And there that person is saying that an atlas is also a very symptomatic of the fact because we are having an overview, a top view, we are basically not noting the nuances, the stories of exploitation that can be hidden under the sweeping landscapes and sweeping colours.
Absolutely right, absolutely right, and in fact I am sure you ask this for reason, that is the theme of Harvest. The time that Harvest was set, it would be impossible to see the world from above. And remember novelist in some way, they see the world from above because if you got a novel which is written in the third person, “he did this, and she did that”, the novelist is like a great big eagle, hovering above, looking down and seeing everything, they are like a God, they are all knowing. Well that never happened in medieval times, the highest anybody got was when they went on a hill or when they went onto a tree. And yet in that novel there are still maps people saw from the top. Those maps would look at the landscape and see only beauty. But of course, when you lived within the landscape, that’s when you found the hardships and the oppression. The view from above doesn’t show hardship and oppression. So I was just telling this to somebody else, so when in an English landscape in a field you see the furrow region, where the last time they ploughed the field and they put the sheep on it and then they put the grass on it. Those furrow regions still exist and those can be hundreds of years old. And where I live in Birmingham, nearly two-thirds of the fields have still got these regions in them from the last time they were ploughed 500 years ago. And when we look at them now and say “that is beautiful.” Actually it is beautiful, it is landscape, actually it’s the history of the dispossession, and those are the lines of the theft, theft of the land by the ruling class, from the agriculture class. And that is happening everywhere in the world today. So if we go onto google map now and we go to the far borders of Brazil, we can look down on the land and we can say that’s beautiful. But when we land in a helicopter, if we get a google helicopter too, then what we will see is soya barrens, turning people off the land so they can grow soya at an industrial level. If we go to parts of India we will see the same thing happen, we will see people leaving their land, you will see it in Africa, you will see it in parts of Europe, always it’s the same story. People whose culture is based on the land have no power against people whose culture is based on money. So yeah, good question.
It’s like the history of a geography…
That’s right. That’s a good point you make because the fact that history and geography are married is often lost to us! We treat them as distant cousins.
Also while I was reading Harvest, I was trying to, outside of the politics that you talk of, on an intimate basis, on a day to day basis, when I see the landscape around me changing, architecture of my city changing, so how do you negotiate the change in the landscape around you?
Well, change is inevitable, I am philosophical about these things. I am neither being an optimist nor a pessimist. Change will come and human beings are very resourceful and will make the best of things. I have a theory about it, there are some people who think the past is always better, some people always think the future is always better. I think everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something worth keeping. So for example, the internet is wonderful because it saves time, so that’s good, but the internet also robs us of meeting people face to face, and that’s bad. Amazon books are wonderful, because that means you can have the book tomorrow, but Amazon books are also terrible because that means we lose bookshops. So that’s my general principle about, the world doesn’t get better or worse, the world changes, we get something better, we lose something we love, we get something we love, we lose something we love.
Are you comfortable with the idea that somebody is going to read Jime Crace on a tablet?
I don’t care, I really don’t care. But, it will happen. People will read on a tablet. But what I am certain is the sensuality of paper will never die. I think the DVD and the CD will disappear completely. Because your ears will always hear the music or your eyes will always see the film. But the book is an important item in its own right, it’s an object of desire, the physical book is an object of a desire, the way a kindle can never be. When I was in America last year, I saw a report came out, and they said that when people have a new kindle, for the first three months, I can’t remember the exact figures but I am going to approximate, the first three months, they only read on the Kindle. They, after 6 months, were mixing it, and after 18 months, the only time they were reading on a Kindle was when they went on a holiday, or when they were on the train, they were travelling and they returned to the book. So that for me, is a hopeful sign, it means that the Kindle and the book can survive hand in gloves.
Could you tell me something about the books you have grown reading, which have shaped up your sensibilities and books that you have enjoyed reading?
There are books that I have enjoyed reading, of course there are. My father introduced me to lots of books, but not books that have developed my sensibility. Seriously that’s a pious answer but my sensibilities were create by the fact that I had two parents who loved me and who I loved and still love even thought they are dead. So that’s the important thing. Secondly, I was fortunate enough to be born in a democratic rich country like England, at the end of a big war. So that’s important. Thirdly, my mother and father were progressive and socialist, so that’s my sensibility. And fourthly, my father particularly and my mother to some extent, were lovers of the natural world, he was a keen birder and he loved gardening and he loved walking. So, all of those things are important to my sensibilities than books are. Books are important but they don’t compare anywhere to those things. For me, it’s the natural world, my parents, my family, politics, everything comes before literature, even sport. The problem is that here we are at a literature festival and everyone has to pretend as if literature is the only important thing in the world, but it isn’t. Because if literature was the only important thing in the world, then people who don’t read books which is most people wouldn’t be important but they are important. And I think when we brought our kids up, we didn’t want them to think that if you don’t read novels, you don’t matter as a human being. What we thought was every human being needs to have some form of transcendence and that transcendence might come from being a cook, it might come from being a carpenter, it might come from being a tennis player, it might come from being a good mother, you know all of those things, everyone should have transcendence. Some people will get their transcendence from reading books, and books are very good at transcendence, that’s their specialty, so of course books are important in that respect. But we should be very careful about thinking that they are not the only way to nirvana through literature. Anything can lead you to that. The important thing is to have transcendence and I don’t mean it in any religious sense because I am not religious at all. I don’t believe in any God. But I do believe that if people have, what we call three score years and ten, if we are lucky, we all have 70 years. So I have got only two left. But within that 70 years, you want everybody to achieve fulfillment, and does it have to involve books? No.
So to that extent, do you find this question idiotic when an author is asked “Do you have a reader in mind while telling a story?”
Yes that is idiotic. When I am writing, I can’t imagine anyone reading it. I can’t imagine finishing that paragraph, let alone that chapter, let alone that book. It feels like such a challenge. I can’t imagine any publisher saying that they would want to publish it, and then I can’t imagine anyone buying it, and then I can’t imagine anyone reading it. So this whole business is completely startling, that’s not because I am being a bit naïve or being silly with you, it’s because when you are writing and I am sure you know this as a writer yourself, all you think about are the words on your screen. That’s what you think about. Start thinking about the author, the reader, you would go mad. Which one are you going to think about? You think about you or you or you, you know readers want different things. You start thinking about them, you become a machine that tries to please everybody. And you can’t please everybody. So the only reader I think about while I am writing is, me.
Have you been able to detach yourself from Harvest?
Yeah. Completely. When I put the final full stop on the final sentence, it is dead to me. It’s finished.
What does a literature festival mean to Jim Crace?
Well, I feel blessed to still get the opportunity to travel around and meet people. You want an honest answer, I love coming to India, I like the friendliness of India, I like the travel, I like to enter the atlas. This is the answer. It enables you to enter the atlas. And then we go to a new country and do some birding, enable me to make new friends, I am with my wife, it enables me to be close to my wife. The literature festival is fun. Its good, what’s not to like?
So what’s next for you?
And future project?
I am writing a stage play.