Continent

Author: Jim Crace

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1986

I read it: August 2018

continent

The opening story, “Talking Skull,” handily sets the stage for the primary tension of Jim Crace’s debut novel. A son from a small village is expected to take over his father’s business of raising infertile livestock to sell back to the superstitious villagers. But the son has visited the cities, and wants no part of the inheritance. “My father touches his chest at the spot where his unscientific prejudices imagine his heart to be located and gives thanks.” There will be no convincing between father and son, son and father. After all, “People like to be reassured. They like to believe that solutions to problems can be bought by the jar.” Jim Crace’s job is to convince us that there is always a trade-off between the traditional and the modern.

And so, seven stories for seven continents, although a single unnamed continent of the title presumably encompasses all of the third-world locations in which the stories take place. Crace uses perspectives of both the visitors and the locals, as illustrated in “Cross-country,” in which a healthy professor is challenged to a race by a young man on horseback. They run across the land, and the visitor notes that “somehow it was more noble and more worldly amongst the slipping soils and half-chewed thorns” than to run at his campus back home. “He would preserve his sense of loss” at his time in this strange place. As the cultures in Continent are forced to move on, they each preserve their own sense of loss.

While the stories tie themselves to real place-names, the action unfolds in imagined foreign locales. This clever blending emphasizes the humanity in each character and each activity. The author has a tremendous skill in bringing tactile professions to the page, always describing a wide array of human objects and natural artifacts. One favorite story is “Sins and Virtues,” about a master calligrapher confronting the end of his life at the same time that his work is being recognized abroad and sought out by capitalists. “Electricity” emphasizes the optimism of a village on the brink of being recognized on the global map. “It is startling how light can shorten distance,” Crace writes, his prose capturing the scene while constantly suggesting the mutating borders of land and custom.

 

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