Lloyd Jones has been a big name in his native New Zealand for over a decade, but he became internationally renowned with the Booker-shortlisted Mister Pip in 2008. His latest novel, the confronting and affecting Hand Me Down World looks set to repeat his success. The Australian’s Geordie Williamson spoke to Lloyd Jones for Readings.
Forgive me if I’m particularly dozy,’ says Lloyd Jones when I reach him by phone in London, before resting his receiver long enough to drop a sash against the morning noise. It is 8am, UK time, and the author has spent a restless night. It seems the accommodation above Soho’s Groucho Club exposes guests to the 24/7 bustle of bohemian, multi-racial Dean Street below.
I can imagine the scene: crowds of social drinkers and hardcore clubbers thronging the narrow, cobbled street until the small hours, along with the minicab touts, prostitutes, rough sleepers and low-wage migrant workers who follow in their wake. It strikes me that Jones is perched above the same hard and melancholy realm his latest fiction describes.
While Hand Me Down World was recollected in the relative tranquillity of his native New Zealand, Jones acknowledges that his twelfth book in 25 years was inspired by a particular urban space: Berlin. A city where he recently spent the better part of a year courtesy of an NZ government writers’ residency, and in which he witnessed plentiful evidence of the largest diaspora in history, that of the Third World to the First.
The novel that grew from his stay tells the story of a beautiful young African woman who undertakes the arduous, twenty-first century Odyssey across the Mediterranean and Europe in search of her son, who has been stolen by her lover, a violent and creepy charmer from Berlin who seduced and impregnated the young hotel worker at a resort on the Arabian Sea.
Although Hand Me Down World shares with Jones’s previous fictions a fascination with the politics of identity, that complex and fluid collection of impulses he described in a recent lecture as the ‘republic of the self’, the form he uses to pursue these interests is unique. The novel’s narrative is constructed from the testimonies of those people whose lives cross that of the young woman during her journey – a chorus of voices, each of whom recounts only a fragment of her tale.
I wonder at the difficulties this approach presents to the author. Jones explains that ‘long before the novel had even started to take shape’ he began writing about an African woman who swims ashore in Sicily. ‘But I knew even then I didn’t want to inhabit that one voice, that one point of view. I think the title, Hand Me Down World, almost created the form. She’s the link between all these people who would have nothing in common if not for her passing through their lives.’
But it isn’t just the love of a technical challenge that decided the novel’s structure. At one point in the narrative, three characters pass the tomb of philosopher Gottfried Fichte in a Berlin Cemetery. Fichte was a thinker who argued that self-consciousness is a social phenomenon; one requiring, as the author puts it, ‘another who sets the limitations of self’.
In that case, what self can a young African woman without family, friends, colleagues or partner be said to have? As one kind soul observes, having invited the homeless woman back to a warm and comfortable apartment, hers ‘was a different kind of presence. She wasn’t someone who constantly demands your attention. She didn’t talk. She was inwardly focussed. All her attention went into not occupying space.’ It is a tribute to Jones’s careful thinking that, instead of falsifying her interiority, he should have found a way to honour the unknowable aspects of her nature.
But as readers follow her every move – from the Sicilian beach she washes up on after being abandoned at sea by people smugglers, along endless motorways and B-roads, through dense forests and isolated mountain passes, and on into the city of three and a half million souls where she knows no one, has nothing, and is ignorant of the whereabouts of her former lover and child – our sympathy for her plight is tested by her actions.
What to say about her stealing and cheating, her manipulation of others, her prostitution? Jones does not back away from his creation’s toughness. ‘She’s pretty hard, isn’t she? And very single minded.’ He suggests that, while you can’t help but be sympathetic towards her circumstances, you don’t have to necessarily like her. ‘You can admire her – but you know it’s that singular mindedness that’s going to get her to Berlin, to her son. And that kind of singular mind probably has an edge to it.’
The reader’s appreciation of her character is further complicated by the manner of its arrival, filtered through the testimony of men and women who are themselves unreliable: each shaped by individual need, vanity and self-delusion. Jones agrees that the African woman’s character is often misread, but defends the process. ‘All of us see people from different angles; we never see them in their entirety. If you relied on one account alone, they’d offer up a minor piece in her life, but the truth lies elsewhere. So, many of those testimonies are self-regarding or evasive – that’s why you need her account to set the record straight.’
And it’s true: when the African woman finally has her turn to speak, the reader’s perspective on earlier accounts is radically altered. Some whose testimony suggested an intimacy with or special knowledge of the woman are found to be clueless; once-marginal figures become important, even heroic. It is an especially rich and surprising upsetting of our expectations, and a partial resolution of ambiguity that clears the stage for that most crucial of encounters – that between the woman and her son.
Like his elegant and strong-willed creation, Jones is someone for whom geography is not destiny. When I ask him about what a New Zealand author is doing writing about Africans in Berlin, he is quick to decry the label. ‘I always think it’s a clumsy category. Does it mean just a writer born in New Zealand, or does that mean you are sentenced for the rest of your days to write about corn or dairy farming. I go where my imagination goes – and my imagination just doesn’t sit tightly inside those boundaries.’
Instead, Jones has travelled widely and kept his eyes open: in newly-open Albania at the end of the Cold War, for example, and most famously on the island of Bougainville after the terrible civil strife that killed thousands there. ‘Writers are in the habit of collecting landscapes’ says Jones, ‘places we file away in the subconsciousness for future use.’
Still, this latest work seems less about physical landscape than a metaphysical state. And while Hand Me Down World is finally a more hopeful book than either Biografi or Mr Pip, the two major works that preceded it, there is something about its subject matter that makes this new fiction sadder and more muted still: a sense, perhaps, that behind the one happy story Jones tells there are countless others that are not.
This feeling is borne out by Jones when he describes the real-world inspiration for the novel: a newspaper account, read while the author was in Berlin, about an incident in which 26 Africans were dragged to Spain, clinging to a tuna net. The trawler which brought them to land was refused entry and obliged to turn around, its occupants still hanging on, to head back out to sea.
Although they were eventually rescued and taken to a detention camp on Sicily’s island of Lampedusa, Jones’s voice vibrates with outrage at his recollection of the ‘breathtaking lack of common humanity displayed by Fortress Europe. I was struck by two things here. The problem of illegal migration – and it is not an easy problem to solve – but also the almost sort of magic realist quality of that moment for those Africans. Some of these people would have never even seen the sea and then there they are, clinging to a tuna net, dragged along. Some said it was terrifying at night – they would see the fish, the eyes darting towards them.’
‘I think it was the surreal aspect of that moment that gave birth to my African woman,’ says Jones. ‘The world is woven from these extraordinary narratives. And all of us are living inside the story.’
Geordie Williamson is chief literary critic of The Australian.