A triumph. Now I know what it means when reviewers label a book or a film as a triumph. For an author, any book completed which accomplishes its purpose must be considered a triumph, at least a personal victory. But a book like The Chimes, in all its originality, lyrical prose and blend of dystopia and fantasy, is not only a triumph for New Zealand author, Anna Smaill, but for the reader and the world of literature. It is more than deserving of its long-listing for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
What are the chimes? They are an enormous symphonic assault on the citizens of Smaill’s re-imagined London, disrupting their ability to retain memory. Originating from the citadel in Oxford, the chimes are orchestrated by members of the ruling Order who, protected from the debilitating effects themselves, believe they are doing good by issuing daily doses of unifying anthems, restoring order after a cataclysmic event known as the Allbreaking, continuously initiating citizens into their belief system known as Onestory.
While fantasy, it is not so far fetched to associate music and memory so intimately. I recall my favourite lines of DH Lawrence:
“In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.”
Only, in The Chimes, music is used to obliterate memory as much as it is used to trigger it.
Into this setting enters young Simon, quickly incorporated into a group of pact-runners who, for reasons unclear even to them, search for palladium – the Lady, the Pale – in underground tunnels near the Thames. The group reminds me of the gang in Graham Greene’s short story, “The Destructors”, and is led by the charismatic, dominant, semi-blind Lucien who has a special ability to map the tunnels of the under for the runners who find palladium in the mud. He is like the comic hero Daredevil on steroids, using bat-like echolocation to create a mental visual picture from the collection of sound around him, but also singing out notes so that the runners can see the routes as well.
The characters’ primary sense is sound – and this is the genius of the book. It’s an imagined world for the reader too, in which we are brought into the mind of Simon to try and understand what it must be like to live as he does – no written words exist or those that remain are no longer understood by anyone. Simon retains the memories from his life prior to London by holding onto objects in his memory bag . It turns out not everyone can do what Simon does. He has a special ability, a gift inherited from his mother, a member of the early resistance movement, the Ravensguild. It was his mother who explained to him the significance of the loss of the written word:
“Code was a way of keeping thoughts still. Of helping them stay in formation. Everybody used to understand it, and they could write in it too. It meant that you could return to the ideas when you wanted. Code is a kind of memory.”
There had been book burnings, as there had been in my own novel, The Chain. And, as I do in The Chain, Smaill explores life without books. In my novel, knowledge is stored in the cloud, on servers with the potential of it being lost or manipulated, centralised and ultimately under the control of the Global Domain. The retention of truth is tenuous. Similarly, in The Chimes, knowledge is controlled by the Order and, because the memory of those outside this Order is interfered with, knowledge is subject to loss and distortion, disconnection:
“Chimes is tolling out death. Human death and the death of stories.”
In this world of sound, a different language is needed and Smaill incorporates a plethora of musical terminology. Practically every sentence uses sound or musical diction to describe action, setting, thought so the reader is challenged yet guided in perceiving the world as Simon does. It is hard work at first, but, like learning a second language, it is best accomplished by immersion rather than analysis. The more you read on, the easier it is to understand the language. I haven’t read it, but I’m told A Clockwork Orange is similar.
Smaill’s prose is so lucid and fluid, the immersion is easy and delightful. Here’s a sampling. Appreciate the inclusion of the language of sound, seamlessly woven into passages, creating a realism in the fantasy. I could have chosen a passage at random, the writing is like this throughout. In this scene, Simon is in the tunnels with Clare, another member of his pact:
“‘Here,’ I say. I loose the Lady to her in a short lob. ‘You go tacet. Take the Pale. I’ll lead them off. I’ll meet you at the storehouse.’
Clare nods mute and is off with silent footfall before I can speak again.
I wait for five beats and then I pull the small whistle from round my neck. I put it to my lips and blow our comeallye, as high and taunting as I can make it. Strange to hear the tune, innermost and close as a name, skewed in the harsh, baiting echo. I fight the need to run. I wait two beats more past what I think I need to and then I move off. Presto, forte.”
Tacet, mute, silent, speak, beats, whistle, high, tune, echo, presto, forte – all words associated with sound and music and used liberally throughout to describe action and atmosphere. Other words have been lost in The Chimes – churches have become crosshouses. There are a lot of religious elements here – the Order, Matin, Mass, Vespers. The Ravensguild resembles a coven persecuted by the elite Order – an old idea, but developed brilliantly in The Chimes. All the religious costuming, customs and abuse of power is here without any sense of a spirituality or belief in a higher being.
But The Chimes does not fall victim to a literary experiment. There is a great story here on par with The Matrix films or even the fun New Zealand Karazan Quartet series. There are two chosen ones in the story: In the eyes of the Order, Lucien was a gifted musician, destined to play the Carillon, a skill requiring monk-like dedication and lifestyle, all of which are rejected by Lucien in favour of the river and the life of a pact-runner before he returns to disrupt the Order’s system with the aide of Simon, another chosen one whose destiny is shaped by his abiilty to not only remember things from objects, but to access others memories from their own objects.
There is a terrific scene in which Simon visits Mary, one of the last of the Ravensguild, desparate to be relieved by another who can safeguard her storehouse of memory obejects which would bring down the Order. As she meets with Simon, Lucien waiting outside, I couldn’t help but picture Morpheus arranging the meeting with his chosen one, Neo, and the Oracle who would help him realise his part in the story.
There is also a development of the classic dystopian theme of “the individual vs the collective” and, while I don’t think The Chimes adds anything new philosophically to this theme, it is expounded on effectively and meaningfully. The Order have propulgated their belief system through OneStory, an attempt to create unity amongst people. At first, this seems like obvious brainwashing and propaganda to the reader and we root For Simon and Lucien who attempt to gather a collection of individual stories and knit them together to create an alternative narrative, a series of stories connected in sequence. For me, Smail’s most revelatory moment comes when she challenges her reader’s preference for this version. The challenge comes via the oracle-like Mary:
“’The question is, even if you have all of those memories, this grand and noble history of ours, how will it help? What is to make it anything but another version of events, another Onestory?’”
Another Onestory. It’s a terrific question. If whole truth is based on a collection of individual part truths, the whole changes every time a part is added or subtracted. Again, it is similar to The Chain and the development of WikiPress, a computer-generated news site which uses individual contributions to blend into one story (a very realistic possibility one day, as evidenced in recent “robot-reporting”). But the story keeps changing as new contributions are made, presumably creating a more truthful whole. It raises Pontius Pilates’, question, “What is truth?” And, “what is History”?
Despite the oppression and elitism, the Order provides peace, a Pax Romana of sorts, and their truth is dependent on a philosophy, a Onestory. Those who do not have the talents of Simon and Lucien seem happy enough and wouldn’t remember if they weren’t! So, who is it really benefitting if they disrupt this order, creating an individualistic mess? In the words of the magister musicae:
“’I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the same error. They mistake the individual hungers and desires, the wants and needs of the solo player, as a source of meaning. Think they can live for themselves and for the pleasure of others. Yet there is not truth in that; there is no way forward. Where did the cult of personality take our predcessors? Into a mired, frantic world without foothold of truth or understanding.'”
Again, there’s a classic tension in this theme, wonderfully treated in The Chimes. Two years ago, I reviewed another New Zealand novel well known for its Man Booker recognition, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It was a tremendous achievement, but not one I would re-read as readily as The Chimes. I can’t acclaim Anna Smaill more highly and recommend it to readers world-wide.