A dreamer's voyage, a voyage of dreams, between two continents.
Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
When this melancholy ex-dictator eventually alights at the train station near his old home, it is evening. As he walks along the river toward the village, meditating on the past, he is suddenly struck by an anomaly: The river s current appears to be flowing in the wrong direction. In every memory he can dredge up Olivero visualizes the water running the other way. Mystified and troubled, he resolves to follow the river toward two old mills, hoping to find there an answer to this apparent alteration in the system of nature.
Instead, he happens upon a scene of horror. At one of the mills he glimpses a figure carrying a lamb into a ground floor room. He peers through a window
On a bare table to the right lay the lamb; its throat had been cut and was bleeding into a large bowl, over the edge of which its head hung pathetically. In the middle of the room the man stood, drawing back the head of a woman by the hair and compelling her to drink from a cup which he held in his hand. So much was clear at a glance; then Olivero noticed that the woman, who was extraordinarily frail and pallid, was bound by a rope to the chair in which she was seated, and that her expression was one of concentrated terror as she struggled to refuse the proffered cup. The blood which she was being forced to drink dribbled down each side of her mouth and fell in bright stains down the front of her white dress.
As the reader guesses, and Olivero eventually confirms, the woman s skin was not white, but a faint green shade. What s more, her fingernails are pale blue and her flesh emits a sweet heavy odor like the scent of violets. In the village, this frail creature is prosaically called Sally, but her real name, we later discover, is Siloen.
The Green Child is divided into three sections, and by this point we are only halfway through part one. Following this recognition scene, we are told about Siloen s earlier life in the village and of Olivero s own long-ago relationship with her captor, a former pupil with a cruelly perverse nature. In the middle and longest section of the novel, we find out about Olivero s post-village life, first in London doing accounts for a Jewish tailor, then in Spain as a political prisoner, and finally in South America as a revolutionary.
But neither of these two sections prepares the reader for the visionary last, in which Siloen returns to the realm from which she strayed into our world. The ever-restless, dissatisfied Olivero follows her on what appears a suicidal journey with the same glad precipitateness with which he left his village, left London, left Spain, left Roncador. He leaps into the unknown and there experiences a final glorious metamorphosis.
Herbert Read writes with a classic, no-frills purity, but he invests each of his novel s three parts with its own specific feel. The opening is dominated by images of night and nightmare--of romantic mystery and phantasmagoria, leading up to a feverish combat and a sudden epiphany.
The second is a small-scale Bildungsroman, tracing Olivero s life and political evolution, culminating in his 25-year rule in Roncador. These pages could be a rather muted Joseph Conrad story. Last, the final section might be a fantastic vision la E.T.A. Hoffmann, a glimpse of the utterly alien, a prose poem about the nature of transcendence.
All three sections describe three versions of Utopia--a quiet English village at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, a freshly minted republic in the backlands of South America, and a strange Shangri-La of crystal and silence. Only this last brings Olivero the self-fulfillment he seeks--but only after he has exhausted the joys of sensuality, the gratifications of service to others, and the pleasures of philosophy. In Siloen s austere realm of grottos and rocky ledges, time seems not to pass, the beating of the heart is mere anxious agitation, and death itself arrives quietly, gloriously, as the final diamond-like perfecting of a man or woman s life.
Every so often writers pour everything they know or feel into a single book, and it becomes a sui generis masterpiece. One thinks of H.H. Bashford s scathing (and hilarious) study of religious hypocrisy, Augustus Carp, Esq., or Hope Mirrlee s astonishing fantasy about forbidden fruit, Lud-in-the-Mist, or G.B. Edward s beautiful reminiscence of lost love and things past, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.
To this select company I would add The Green Child, Herbert Read s account of one man s circuitous search for self-transcendence, for harmony with the universe, for glory.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and essayist. He is the author of An Open Book, a memoir, and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure.