Robinsonby Muriel Spark
January Marlow, a heroine with a Catholic outlook of the most unsentimental stripe, is one of three survivors out of twenty-nine souls when her plane crashes, blazing, on Robinson's island. Presumed dead for months, the three survivors must wait for the annual return of the
A suspense novel about three castaways marooned on an island owned by an eccentric recluse.
January Marlow, a heroine with a Catholic outlook of the most unsentimental stripe, is one of three survivors out of twenty-nine souls when her plane crashes, blazing, on Robinson's island. Presumed dead for months, the three survivors must wait for the annual return of the pomegranate boat. Robinson, a determined loner, proves a fair if misanthropic host to his uninvited guests; he encourages January to keep a journal: as "an occupation for my mind, and I fancied that I might later dress it up for a novel. That was most peculiar, as things transpired, for I did not then anticipate how the journal would turn upon me, so that having survived the plane disaster, I should nearly meet my death through it." In Robinson, Muriel Spark's wonderful second novel, under the tropical glare and strange fogs of the tiny island, we find a volcano, a ping-pong playing cat, a dealer in occult as well as lucky charms, flying ants, sexual tension, a disappearance, blackmail, andperhapsmurder. Everything astounds, confounds, and convinces, frighteningly. "She is," as Charles Alva Hoyt once put it, "the Jane Austen of the Surrealists." Robinson, a unique and marvelous novel, is another display of the powers of "the most gifted and innovative British novelist" (The New York Times). In the work of Dame Murielin the last words of Robinson "immediately all things are possible."
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By Muriel Spark
A NEW DIRECTIONS CLASSICCopyright © 1958 Muriel Spark
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters-how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.
You have read about the incident in the papers, and there were some aerial pictures of the island which, when I saw them later, were difficult to recognize as the scene of all I am going to tell you. Most of all, it is the journal that gives me my bearings. It fetches before me the play of thought and action hidden amongst the recorded facts. Through my journal I nearly came by my death.
Three of us were projected from the blazing plane when it crashed on Robinson's island. We were the only survivors of twenty-nine souls including the crew, and, as you know, we were presumed lost until we were found two months and twenty-nine days later. I had concussion and a dislocated left shoulder. Jimmie Waterford got off with a few cuts and bruises. Tom Wells had fractured ribs. I made a quick recovery, and had not been ten days on the island when I started my journal in a damp paper exercise bookwhich Robinson gave me for the purpose. I see that I began by writing my name, the place, and the date, as follows:
January Marlow, Robinson May 20, 1954
My name is January, because I was born in January. I would like to state that I am never called Jan although some of the Sunday papers used that name on their headlines when the news came out that we had been picked up.
Robinson thought at the time that keeping a journal would be an occupation for my mind, and I fancied that I might later dress it up for a novel. That was most peculiar, as things transpired, for I did not then anticipate how the journal would turn upon me, so that, having survived the plane disaster, I should nearly meet my death through it.
Sometimes I am a little vague about the details of the day before yesterday until some word or thing, almost a sacramental, touches my memory, and then the past comes walking over me as we say an angel is walking over our grave, and I stand in the past as in the beam of a searchlight.
When I looked through my island journal again, quite recently, I came across the words, 'Robinson played Rossini to us on his gramophone.' I remembered then, not only Robinson's addiction to Rossini, but all that was in my mind on that evening. That was the twenty-fifth of June, not long before Robinson disappeared. I recall that night-it was my seventh week on the island-I left Robinson's house and climbed down the mountain track among the blue gum trees to the coast. It was a warm night, free from mist, full of moon. I had a desire to throw wide my arms and worship the moon. 'But,' I thought to myself, 'I am a Christian.' Still I had this sweet and dreadful urge towards the moon, and I went back indoors slightly disturbed.
Lying awake that night on my mattress I remembered that my grandmother from Hertfordshire used to recite a little rhyme to the new moon, no matter where, or in what busy street she might be. I saw her in my mind's eye, as I see her now, setting herself apart on the road, intent on the pale crescent against the deepening northern sky:
New Moon, New Moon, be good to me, And bring me presents, one, two, three.
Then she would bow three times. 'One,' she repeated. 'Two. Three.' As a child it embarrassed me if I chanced to be out with her at new moon. I dreaded every moment that one of my school chums might come along and find me associated with this eccentric behaviour. I ramble on, for I am still a little intoxicated with the memory of my sudden wanting to worship the moon among the tall blue gums and sleeping bougainvillaea, with the sea at my ears. I was the only woman on the island, and it is said the pagan mind runs strong in women at any time, let alone on an island, and such an island. It is not only the moon, the incident, that I am thinking of. I consider now how my perception during that whole period were touched with a pre-ancestral quality, how there was an enchantment, a primitive blood-force which probably moved us all
Sometimes people say to me, 'If only you hadn't undertaken that journey ...' 'What a pity you didn't catch an earlier plane ...' or 'To think that you nearly went by sea!'
I am inclined to reject the idea behind these remarks in the same way as I reject the idea that it is best to have never been born.
The plane crashed on the tenth of May, 1954. It had been bound for the Azores but missed the airport of Santa Maria in the fog. I woke by the side of a green and blue mountain lake, and immediately thought, 'The banana boat must have been wrecked.' I then went back into my coma.
It is true I had nearly taken a banana boat bound for the West Indies which called in at the Azores, but had been gradually dissuaded by my friends, after we had taken several looks at the Lascars, Danes, and Irish lolling round the East India Docks. And so, although I had finally taken the expensive Lisbon route by plane, still in my dreams it was the banana boat.
When I came round the second time it was in Robinson's house. I was lying on a mattress on the floor, and as I moved I felt my shoulder hurting very painfully. I could see, facing me through the misty sunlight of a partly open door, a corner of the blue and green lake. We seemed to be quite high on the side of a mountain.
I could hear someone moving in an inner room to my left. In a few moments I heard the voices of two men.
'I say!' I called out. The voices stopped. Then one murmured something.
Presently a door opened at my left. I tried to twist round, but this was painful, and I waited while a man entered the room and came to face me.
'Where am I?'
'Robinson,' he said.
He was short and square, with a brown face and greyish curly hair.
'Robinson,' he repeated. 'In the North Atlantic Ocean. How do you feel?'
'Who are you?'
'Robinson,' he said. 'How do you feel?'
'I think I must be suffering from concussion,' I said.
He said, 'I'm glad you think so, because it is true. To know you have concussion, when you have it, is one-third of the cure. I see you are intelligent.'
On hearing this I decided that I liked Robinson, and settled down to sleep. He shook me awake and placed at my lips a mug of warm tangy milk. While I gulped it, he said.
'Sleep is another third of the cure, and nourishment is the remaining third.'
'My shoulder hurts,' I said.
I touched my left shoulder. I found it stiff with bandages.
'Which shoulder?' he said.
'This one,' I said, 'it is bound up.'
'Which shoulder? Don't point. Think. Describe.'
I paused for light. Presently I said, 'My left shoulder.'
'That's true. You will soon recover.'
A little fluffy blue-grey cat came and sat in the open doorway, squinting at me as I fell asleep.
This was twenty hours after the crash. When I woke again it was dark and I was frightened.
'I say!' I called out.
No reply, and so, after a few minutes, I called out again, 'I say, Robinson!'
A soft living thing jumped on my chest. I screamed, I sat up despite the pain which the movement caused my shoulder. My hand touched soft fur as the cat sprang off the mattress.
Robinson came in with an oil lamp and peered down at me under its beam.
'I thought it was a rat,' I said, 'but it was the cat.'
He placed the lamp on a shiny table. 'Did you feel afraid?' he said.
'Oh, I'm quite tough. But first there was the darkness and then the cat. I thought it was a rat.'
He bent and stroked the cat which was arching around his legs. 'Her name's Bluebell,' he said and went out.
I heard him moving about, and presently he was back with some hot spicy soup. He looked tired, and sighed a little as he gave it to me.
'What is your name?' he said.
'Think,' he said. 'Try to think.'
'Think of what?'
'January Marlow,' I said, and placed the mug of soup on the floor beside me.
He lifted the mug and replaced it in my right hand.
'Sip it, and meanwhile think. You have told me the month and place of your birth. What is your name?'
I was rather pleased about his mistake, it gave me confidence.
'I am called by the unusual name of January because I was born in -'
Immediately he understood. 'Oh yes, I see.'
'You thought it was my concussion,' I said.
He smiled feebly.
Suddenly I said, 'There must have been an accident. I was on the Lisbon plane.'
I sipped the broth while I tried to elucidate what my statement had implied.
'Don't think too hard,' Robinson said, 'all at one time.'
'I remember the Lisbon plane,' I said.
'Were you with friends or relations?'
I knew the answer to that. 'No,' I said at once, rather loudly.
Robinson stood still and sighed.
'But I must send a wire to London in the morning,' I said.
'There's no post office on Robinson. It is a very small island.' He added, since I suppose I looked startled, 'You are safe. I think you will be able to get up tomorrow. Then you shall see what's what.'
He took my empty cup, then sat down in a high wicker chair. The cat jumped on to his lap. 'Bluebell,' he murmured to it. I lay and stared, partly comatose, and it was difficult for me to collect a thought and place it into a sentence. Eventually I said,
'Would you mind telling me, is there a nurse, a woman anywhere about?'
He peered forward as if to compel my attention. 'That must be a difficulty for you. There is no woman on the island. But it is not difficult for me to nurse you. It will only be for a short while. Besides, it is necessary.' He put the cat off his lap. 'Regard me as a doctor or something like that.'
A man's voice called from the inner house. 'That's one of the other patients,' said Robinson.
'How many ... the accident. How many?'
'I'll be back soon,' he said.
I thought he showed fatigue as he left my range of vision. Bluebell camelled her beck, stalked on to my mattress, curled up, and began to purr.
We were a thousand miles from anywhere. I think the effects of the concussion were still upon me when I got up, the fourth morning after the clash. It was some time before I took in the details of Robinson's establishment, and not till a week later that I began to wonder at his curious isolation.
By that time there was no hope of our immediate rescue. Many of you will remember how the whole of the Atlantic had been notified, how military aircraft and commercial airlines searched for us, and all ships kept a look-out for survivors or portions of the wreck. Meantime, there we were on Robinson, with the wreck and the corpses. The island had been under mist when the first search party came over shortly after the crash. Robinson lit distress signals every night, but when, two nights later, the searchers returned, a torrent of rain had quenched the flares. On both occasions the plane had retreated quickly out of the mist, fearful of our mountain. There was nothing but to wait for the pomegranate boat in August.
My left arm ached in its sling when I rose dizzily from my couch on the floor, but dazed as I was, Robinson sent me immediately to nurse Tom Wells who lay with broken ribs encased in a tight jacket which Robinson had contrived, made of canvas strips bound diagonally from back to front, the layers overlapping each other by two-thirds. Robinson explained the principle of this jacket very carefully before telling me that in any case I mustn't remove it from the patient. My hours of duty were from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, when Robinson relieved me.
A long thin man, with his head bound in a proper bandage, did night shifts, and I believe Robinson took over from him also, during the night, so that someone was always ready to attend to Tom Wells.
Robinson had introduced me to the tall man; I recollect his naming me 'Miss January', but I did not catch the man's name, although he seemed familiar to me. I asked Robinson several times in those first days, 'Who is the other nurse? What's his name?' but it was a full week before the name had sunk in, Jimmie Waterford. This Jimmie was very friendly to me, as if we were previously acquainted. It was some time before I remembered having met him on the Lisbon plane. The monosyllabic 'Tom Wells', however, stuck in my mind right away.
About this time I became aware of a small lean boy, about nine years old, very brown and large-eyed. I had seen him when I first got up, but did not really notice him for several days. He followed Robinson everywhere. He had certain duties, like fetching small consignments of firewood into the house and making tea. His name was Miguel.
In the mornings Robinson would give me instructions. I followed them with meticulous care, as one dazed and unable to exercise curiosity. Meanwhile Robinson and the tall man would go off together for two or three hours at a time.
Tom Wells, besides being the most seriously injured, was a difficult patient. He moaned or made noises nearly all day, although Robinson gave him injections. He seemed to have grasped our situation and was, in fact, more conscious than I was at that time. I have always been against nurses who won't stand nonsense from their patients, but I found myself becoming snappy and sharp with Tom Wells, as to the manner born. Robinson would smile in his weary manner, when he overheard me telling the man, 'Stop that noise', 'Pull yourself together', 'Drink this', and so on. All this, before I had in any way got my new environment into focus. I knew, with an inhuman indifference, that there had been an accident. I accepted the situation of being simply in a place, that Robinson was in charge, and that I was to look after Tom Wells at certain fixed times.
Exactly a week after the accident, Robinson said to me at breakfast, 'Try to eat as little as you can. Most of our food is tinned, and I had not counted on guests.'
It was only then that I realized I was eating at all. Robinson had produced meals, and I now presumed I had been eating them. I looked at my plate on the round, pale wood table. I had just finished a portion of yellowish beans. Beside my plate was half a hard thick dry biscuit, of a type which I now recalled having dipped into strong warm tea during the past few days.
After that, I noticed the place more closely.
Excerpted from ROBINSON by Muriel Spark Copyright © 1958 by Muriel Spark
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.