Posts Tagged ‘Guatemala’

staying with relations rose macaulay 001Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay ~ 1930. This edition: Pan, 1947. Paperback. 224 pages

Provenance: The Book Man, Chilliwack, February 2014.

My rating: 7/10

What did I just read?

My fourth encounter with the brilliant but unsettling fiction of Rose Macaulay – the others so far being Crewe Train, The Towers of Trebizond, and The World My Wilderness.

Of these, The World My Wilderness was closest to being a “plausible” story; the others were decidedly surreal. One cannot apparently read Macaulay on complacent auto-pilot; she takes a straightforward narrative and gives it the occasional twist sideways, just enough to catch the reader off guard.

Un-credited poem, one would then assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Un-credited poem, which I assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Among other disconnects from reality on this latest addition to my small Macaulay collection, it was the mention of tigers in the Central American jungle that caused me my greatest bemusement. I could handle all of the other scenarios – the luxuriantly roccoco villa built upon an ancient Mayan temple/Spanish monastery, the sophisticated love lives of the family of English step-brothers, -sisters and cousins living lives of lazy pleasure financed by their older relations, the American con-man with his uncanny knowledge of hidden treasure and his bizarre plot to attain such – but the tigers threw me off my stride.

At first I thought they were merely hypothetical tigers, and that the man referencing them was harking back to years spent in India, but they popped up again (figuratively speaking), apparently as a threat as “real” as the stalking jaguars which lurk in the overgrown Guatemalan forest. Had to stop and do a bit of research, it bothered me so much, and no, there do not appear to be actual tigers endemic to this region of the world. Such a relief! – I thought not, but there was that tiny bit of niggling doubt…

Okay, I’m going off on a strange tangent. Well, perhaps rightly so. This is a rather odd and slightly unsatisfactory tale.

It starts off conventionally enough. This is what the back cover of my old Pan paperback says:

Staying with Relations is about a family who live in a baroque, Maya mansion in the heart of the Central American forest. A young woman novelist goes from England to visit her relatives in Guatemala. Theft, kidnapping and hunting for treasure left there long ago by Spanish priests occur. There is an earthquake; a girl is lost in the jungle while escaping from kidnappers; unexpected aspects of the characters of the dramatis personae emerge. Rose Macaulay has enjoyed in this book the three pleasures of relating adventures, describing exotic scenery, and writing about people…She wrote this book largely as compensation for not having, in a tour of Central America, reached Guatemala and seen its ancient temples buried in jungle…

Macaulay dips her pen deeply into the satirical ink well; she jabs away at herself as much as at her invented characters, being continually cutting about the phenomenon of the English woman novelist and her apparently universal habits. Well, the writer should know.

staying with relations rose macaulay excerpt 001 (2)

Once we get this sort of thing out of the way, the novel proceeds on its way detailing the adventures of the not particularly sympathetic cast of characters. Though Catherine-the-lady-novelist at first seems to be the main character, with the action viewed through her eyes, the point-of-view increasingly shifts until we realize, with something of a shock, that we don’t really know any of these people at all. And certainly not Catherine!

As Macaulay puts her puppets through their paces, one strains to see what her intent is; what is she really going on about? And I wish I could say that I figured this out for myself, but I must give credit elsewhere. It was a comment by Simon at Stuck in a Book , in a discussion of The World My Wilderness, that clicked on the light:

‘Reliable’ is just another word for ‘consistent’, really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel – albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me…) but I believe Macaulay’s broad theme across her novels is: ‘What does it mean to be civilised?’

Once one views the novel with this thought in mind, it all begins to make much more sense. Macaulay is continually discussing, both by the dialogue of her characters and her scene setting, the difference between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” folk. No conclusion is committed to, but the concept of “civilization” trumps all of the other scurryings to and fro which make up the conventional skeleton of the story.

I enjoyed this book as much as one can when one feels as if the author is speaking rather over one’s head. As a dramatic fiction it is as unnervingly just off normal in the same way as something like Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel The Loved One is, or his slyly funny Decline and Fall. (Though Waugh is rather more accessible, in my opinion; Macaulay can be downright obscure, giving her readers very little help at all.)

I should probably quit now, having not really talked about the plot or any of the details of the story, and digging myself deeper with every sentence into a situation which I am going to have a hard crawling back out of. A veritable tiger-pit of a post, as it were!

For those who are already Macaulay aficionados, Staying with Relations will be a most interesting read. But I wouldn’t start here for my first introduction to this unique novelist. Perhaps try Crewe Train instead; it is just as satirically twisted but there are less characters to keep track off, and a more clearly defined heroine. Who is also, now that I come to think of it, “staying with relations”…

 

 

 

 

 

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