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"A novel of ideas in the best sense, this is a provocative meditation on the roles of chance, fate, and myth in our lives." -- Library Journal
Dalkey Archive Press
Reminiscent in theme and style to his Whitbread Award-winningHopeful Monsters, Nicholas Mosley'sThe Hesperides Treetells of a young man frustrated by the inability of his two chosen courses of study--biology and literature--to adequately define the world. Baffled by several life-shaping coincidences that seem to be part of life itself, he embarks on a physical and intellectual journey in search of a girl he fell in love with years earlier. This journey leads him to a deserted island off the coast of Ireland and, ...
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Reminiscent in theme and style to his Whitbread Award-winningHopeful Monsters, Nicholas Mosley'sThe Hesperides Treetells of a young man frustrated by the inability of his two chosen courses of study--biology and literature--to adequately define the world. Baffled by several life-shaping coincidences that seem to be part of life itself, he embarks on a physical and intellectual journey in search of a girl he fell in love with years earlier. This journey leads him to a deserted island off the coast of Ireland and, perhaps, to the mythical Garden of the Hesperides, home of the Tree of Life.
Dalkey Archive Press
"A novel of ideas in the best sense, this is a provocative meditation on the roles of chance, fate, and myth in our lives." -- Library Journal
Dalkey Archive Press
When I was a child I used to think that I could learn frommy parents; even that this was what they were there for. Myfather used to talk; I liked to hear him talk; my mother seemedhalf to listen and half to be ready to tease him or divert him ifhe got too carried away by words. I had the idea that this washow families worked.
It was only gradually that I came to realise that otherchildren did not see their parents like this. They were apt tolook on their fathers as something of a joke or a threat; andtheir mothers, though perhaps somewhat sacred, had to bechallenged even if guiltily. And when my school friends cameto visit me it was evident in spite of their good manners thatthey saw my parents in this way — my father as an authorityfigure to be subtly thwarted or evaded, and my mother tobe charmed perhaps but as a matter of themselves showingoff. Everyone except special friends was likely to be seen asa potential enemy.
One of the things my father liked to talk about was thischaracteristic of humans who, in order to stay alive, had hadto learn to distrust and to fight other creatures, often eventhose closest to them. But now this sort of programminghad become too dangerous (my father would begin to orate)— the attitudes of distrust and aggression which in humanshad evolved for their preservation were in this technologicalage working to their destruction. But how could what hadbecome programmed, built-in, decide to change itself? Didit not have to wait for something outside to change it?
My mother would say `But you don't believe that. Youbelieve thatif we recognise the situation then the programmingcan change.'
`Yes I do believe that.'
`Then why don't you say it?'
`Perhaps if we get smug then things don't change.'
When I went to school I found myself involved in theusual hostilities and alliances; but by that time I had learnedthat there was something odd about me — at birth there hadbeen something fragile about my skull and this had neverquite corrected itself. As a consequence I was kept fromplaying some games and was warned to keep out of trouble.I had sometimes been taunted about this, but once I hadfought back with such ferocity that it had seemed I mightdie and my tormentors had become alarmed. After this Iwas for the most part left alone and could get on with myown devices.
I did not mind my solitariness: I was able to read a lot, andwanted to find out how things worked. I had got hold of theidea (I suppose picked up from my father) that things evolvedwhen some individuals stood out from the crowd; and thusI could imagine some virtue in my vulnerability, while thelikelihood that I would die young was a counterweight tobeing smug.
My father was a maker of documentary films for television.He specialised in scientific subjects which should be of morethan academic interest. A year or two before the time aboutwhich I will be writing he had made a series of programmesabout the science of the first half of the twentieth century;these had brought him a certain acclaim and he was nowbeing encouraged to do a similar series on the second halfof the century that was coming towards its end. But hemaintained that this was much more difficult to do, becausealthough the science of the first half had been intellectuallypuzzling — what with quantum physics, conundrums aboutgenes, and so on — it had been strikingly dramatic, with thesplitting of the atom leading to the release of nuclear energyand in biology the lead-up to discoveries about DNA. Thescience of the second half however was largely taken up withtrying to know how to handle or even to understand whathad been uncovered in the first — there seeming to be someincapacity in the mind concerning this. Physicists for instancehad coined the phrase — Anyone who thinks he understandsquantum physics doesn't understand it. And with regard togenes — well, were humans helplessly in thrall to them orwere they not?
I had said to my father `But can't you make a series ofprogrammes about that?'
`About going along in the dark?'
`Couldn't that be exciting?'
My father had recently bought a motor caravan in whichto go on reconnaissance trips for his work. I had been onone of these journeys with him and there had then beenopportunities to talk — we had floated off into speculationwithout being brought down to earth by my mother. Wehad ruminated on what life was all about; whether it had anymeaning. But after a time it seemed that such words becametoo cloudy even for us; and my father would break off and say— `But the important things anyway can't really be said. Wordscan take you so far then you have to go on a journey.'
I said `But aren't these exciting discoveries being made inbiology now? That's what the master says at school.'
`Yes but for every puzzle solved there's always another.'
`What about the mutants without which there wouldn'tbe any evolution — that are usually, but not always, snuffedout.'
`Well yes, but if they're not, that depends on extraordinarycoincidences.'
I wondered if my father thought I might be talkingabout myself.
I used to spend my holidays with my parents, but thenwhen I was seventeen and working for my A-level examsmy parents went off in the caravan on their own on a tourof restaurants in Europe, of which I was both scornful andjealous. But I thought — All right, I'll be going off on journeyson my own.
Then in the summer of 1998 when I had taken my examsand was due to go to a university in the autumn there wastalk of going in the caravan to the west coast of Ireland.My mother had inherited a cottage there; her family hadoriginally come from Ireland but the family house had beenburned down at the time of the troubles in the twenties; thiscottage however with a small patch of land remained, and mymother had to decide what to do with it.
Also my father planned to visit a wildlife station in thevicinity. There was a bird sanctuary on a rocky island just offthe coast where it had been noted that the habits and physicalfeatures of certain varieties of birds had been changing withunusual rapidity. My father's interest in making a film aboutthis was rekindled. He explained —
`Well yes, new varieties do seem to be developing perhapsdue to pollution in the sea or in the fish they eat or to changesin the climate — or whatever — I mean varieties which seemable to deal with the new conditions. The changes in the birdsare not very striking, but statistically they do seem relevant toone of the puzzles about evolution. I mean how small changesin the environment can lead quite quickly to new varietiesof organism or even conceivably eventually a new species.This goes against the orthodox Darwinian view that geneticmutation results in adaptation only slowly.'
I said `So these birds learn to survive.'
`Well in a sense, but it's not exactly learning, the ideais that stress caused by a changing environment speeds upthe occurrence of random mutations so that amongst suchbirds there are quite naturally likely to be one or two fittedto dealing with the changing environment. And so theseinstead of being wiped out would flourish and proliferate.And so it might seem that organisms might not only adaptto circumstances but pass on their adaptability, but it's morea matter just of who lives and who dies.'
I said `And that's what's happening on this island?'
`If I make a film it'll probably end up being about a lot ofacademics quarrelling with one another.'
My mother said `Your father will love that.'
My father said `What.'
`What you really want to make a film about is the waypeople love bashing one another about.'
`Well, yes, and how they might change.'
My mother said `What your father can't understand is howthe benighted Irish, who seem to live permanently under conditionsof stress, never seem to produce any variation at all.'
My father said `I've got the explanation for that.'
`I'm sure you have.'
`Bashing one another about is to the Irish a perfectly normalcondition. So it's not stress.'
`But I mean, how miraculously have they adapted to stress!'He put an arm round my mother.
When my father and mother went on like this it seemedthat they knew what they were doing. My mother was byprofession a psychotherapist: she believed I suppose that allrelationships contained stress, but these could be guided towork themselves out.
I said `Do you think it's all right for people to blow eachother up?'
My father said `No, but people may only learn by thingsgetting worse before they get better.'
When my parents had been planning the trip to Irelandthere had been some talk about my perhaps not going withthem. I had been wondering about this myself; but as soon asit was put into words I felt disconcerted — so in this I was nodifferent from everyone else? But we had not travelled as afamily in the caravan before, and it might just be too crowded,and were they not offering me my chance of freedom? Butit would be a sad moment for us as a family when I tookoff on my own. It seemed we were getting into one of thepredicaments that my father talked about in which for quitegood reasons people were pulled in two ways at once. Hesaid `But do you or don't you want to come?' I said `I don'tknow.' My mother said `Of course he wants to come.'
My father said `I thought we might be giving you a chanceto get away.'
My mother said `Well we've done that.'
I said `Yes thank you, I'd like to come.'
The motor caravan was high and wide but not all thatspacious inside. It had two narrow double bunks — one on aplatform crossways above the front seats, and the other madeup from the settee-type seats at the back. I said that I wouldnot mind sleeping on the floor if my mother and father eachwanted a bed to themselves — when they were both workinglate at home they sometimes slept in different rooms. Buthere again we seemed to be approaching a ludicrous situationin which I, by thinking I was being considerate, seemed to besuggesting that my parents could not bear sleeping together,or that I could not bear the thought of this. I had readsomewhere that children were supposed to be horrified atthe idea of their parents making love. This had seemed tome ludicrous, but how could I explain?
My father said `No you must have the top bunk. Andperhaps something miraculous will come from the stress ofyour mother and I being squashed together at the back.'
My mother said `Actually we rather like being in a smallbed.'
So we set off across England and Wales and my father wasonce more in a situation in which he could orate. (My mothersaid — `I thought you were going to get the radio mended.' Myfather said — `I've lost the code that gets it started. Ah, couldn'tI have lost my own code!') So with my father driving and mymother sitting beside him and myself reclining in the back,he said as if over his shoulder —
`How much do you know about Ireland? I mean thehistory, the politics, the oppression, the famines, the violence.All this for centuries blamed on the ghastly English invadersbut then when the English wanted to get out and there mightat last have been peace then it was as if the Irish had got so usedto outrage that they had to carry it on between themselves;and indeed Catholics and Protestants could just as easily bloweach other up.'
I said `I thought something had been settled this Easter.'
My father said `There are signs that that won't last.'
My mother said `You really think people don't want tochange?'
`Not unless there's something more exciting.'
`There's getting rich. That's a change.'
`Yes, that could be a stage.'
We spent the first night somewhere off the road in Wales.I lay in the top bunk screened by a curtain, and I could hearmy father and mother giggling in the back. I thought — Well,they must know that I'm in no way horrified at the idea oftheir making love. Might not a cosmic ray have come downat the time of my conception — to give me my vulnerableskull, my mark of being a possible mutation? At least I haveno interest in bashing people about.
The next day we crossed the sea and trundled through thecentral Irish plain. There were peat bogs on either side: Iwondered how anything so soft and damp could burn. Myfather seemed to want to counteract the impression he hadgiven about the Irish the previous day, because he talkednow about the paradox of the Irish being so humorous, soimaginative, so creative — about their legends, their poetry;about how before the coming of the English Ireland had beena country not only of warriors but of scholars and holy menand shrines.
`This island for instance where nowadays seabirds breed wasfor centuries a home for hermits and monks; they came to findrefuge from the butchery of the Dark Ages, in which everyactivity seemed to be a provocation for hatred and revenge.The monks wanted to break out of this, to break the cycle,and perhaps they did for themselves. They fasted and prayed,practised terrible austerities, copied and illustrated amazinglybeautiful manuscripts. They adapted to paradoxes but theydidn't transform society.'
My mother said `In the end they did.'
`What survived was the Church.'
I said `And that didn't work?'
`It got hooked on power.'
My mother said `The other thing works secretly.'
I said `What is the other thing?'
My father said `Well, holiness. But that's what you can'tquite say.'
I thought — You mean, it's like cosmic rays whizzingabout?
My mother said `It's not God's job to make things easy.'
I said `What is God's job?'
My father said `To make things possible.'
When we got to the fishing village somewhere in thevicinity of which was the cottage that now belonged to mymother we could not at first find it, and we were at the endof a long day. My mother said she was sorry, but she had beenthere for only one holiday as a child: my father said `No one'sblaming you.' We enquired at a farm and a woman directed usup a track and there was a white-painted cottage with a tiledroof and my mother said she remembered it as being madeof crumbling stone and thatch. We turned back to the farmand the woman seemed to have become hostile: she said shehad told us correctly and retreated into the house. My fathersaid `Perhaps they burned the old cottage down to get theinsurance.' My mother said `I don't think I can stand yourjokes.' We went back to the cottage and stared at it and mymother said `Well if this is it I don't want it.' My father said'Didn't you notice all the nice new cottages along the coast?I expect people are making fortunes smuggling explosives.'My mother got out of the caravan and went through a smallgarden to the door of the cottage and found the key whichhad been left by the local agent under a stone; this fitted andshe went in. My father followed. I stayed in the caravan: Ithought — Perhaps I won't fred it so difficult after all in thisplace to get away from my parents; this is a place where therehave been those monks, those birds.
After a while I thought that I would get out of thecaravan and walk towards the sea. I tried to imagine theholy men who had come here to live on rocks like birds;they had hoped, imagined themselves to be mutations? Butthey had not wanted to alter the world? They had dreamedof another world?
The track along which we had come ended at the cottage,but there was a footpath going on directly into the setting sunso it seemed this must be the direction to the sea. But the sunwas in my eyes so that I could hardly see: I thought — Well thisis what we have been talking about, isn't it? The journey towhere one wants to go without exactly knowing where oneis going; moving in darkness towards the light and the sea.
By shielding my eyes I could see that I was coming to theedge of a cliff; the path led to where there seemed to be stepsgoing down. The steps were narrow and cut into the cliff face;there was no railing. The steps led, so far as I could see, toa narrow beach of shingle and a promontory of black rock;to the right of this there was the long curve of a bay wherewaves came in ceaselessly; on the left beyond the shingle therewas what looked like a narrow concrete landing stage. In thesetting sun the dark sea gleamed; the rocks appeared suffusedwith blood; the whole scene was like a mythical scene in apainting.
Just off the landing stage there was a small boat and thefigure of a man or boy leaning over the side with his handsin the water. This might be the miraculous draft of fishes:the dipping of whoever-it-was by his heel into the sea?Myths seem to have meaning without having to say whatthe meaning might be. Or might it be that the boat wassimply that of a smuggler or gun-runner such as my fatherhad hinted at — his arms in the water to drag up a sunkencache of weapons, or even to hold down the head of anenemy condemned to be drowned. My father had said thiswas a favourite part of the coast for terrorists to land weapons:in which case shouldn't I turn back? But if one was on somemythical journey, should one turn back? And the man or boywas more likely to be a fisherman. I had begun to grope myway down the steps with the sun against my eyes like varnishon a painting; the man or boy was struggling with somethingin the water; someone not yet quite drowned? some great fishbeing dragged to the land? As I went on down the crumblingsteps I could see that the figure in the boat was manoeuvringit in towards the landing stage with one hand while with theother he hung on to whatever it was in the water. This seemedto be alive because it reared up suddenly as if with the arm orneck of some strange monster; it did not seem to be a fishbecause it was too splayed out and craggy: perhaps indeed itwas a mutant: but then — a bird? It was a wing rather thanan arm that was waving up out of the water. I had arrived atthe bottom of the steps; I had to set off — unless I turned backnow — across the shingle to the landing stage. An explanationof the scene if not the meaning seemed to become clear: theboy — for the figure in the boat was that of a boy, perhapseven one of much the same age as myself — the boy wastrying to rescue a bird that had become trapped or injuredin the water; probably it had become contaminated by oil;that was why the sea had seemed to glisten like a painting.And so of course I was right to come and help the boy.I crossed the shingle. The boy had now got the boat upto the landing stage and was holding it there while at thesame time trying to lift out of the water the large bird byits seemingly infinitely extensible wing; but he could not dothis without using two hands, which would unbalance theboat and might upset it. However if I knelt on the landingstage and put my arms in the water under the bird we mighttogether lift it, the boy and I, on to the landing stage or intothe boat or whatever. This I found myself doing. The birdwas like something taboo to the touch; clasping it was likegetting a hold on its tendons, guts, lungs; we struggled withit, the boy and I, dabbling our hands in the oily water thatwas like blood. We did not speak; it was as if for what wewere doing it was not necessary to speak. We got the birdup on to the landing stage; it was the size of a large goose orswan, but I did not think it was a goose or swan, it had tooshort a neck and a curved beak; its colouring was obscured bythe oil. It looked at us, the boy and I, with a dark bright eye.Then I saw that as well as any contamination by oil there wasentwined round its feet a mess of wires and plastic that mighthave been part of a fisherman's tackle or net; the bird wouldnot have been able to take off and fly or even probably toswim; before long it would have drowned. The boy beganto pull at the wires but they were too tight, they were cuttinginto the bird's legs. Also the light was now fading so that wecould not see what we were doing. I thought — You musttake the bird home and disentangle it carefully: it would beeasier for you to do this than me. Then I heard my mothercalling from the top of the cliff.
I helped the boy to get the bird from the landing stage intothe boat. He smiled at me as if to thank me but he seemed tobe hurrying to get away, as if he felt that it was important forhim not to be seen by anyone but me. He pushed off withan oar and used it like a paddle to go silently out to sea. Hewent into a mist that was now rising from the water; the skyabove it was like the roof of a cavern. I did not want to callout to my mother to tell her that I was all right because Ithought that any sound might shatter the odd fragility of thisscene. The boat disappeared in the mist. Then there was thesound of an outboard motor starting up. I had not noticedthe outboard motor; perhaps now the mythical spell of thescene could be broken. And what indeed had been mythicalabout it, except that there was still the feel in my nerves, mymind, of the odd roughness combined with softness that hadseemed taboo — of the bird's feathers and bones that had beenso uncanny in my hands. And the boy, what had it been aboutthe boy, that he was like myself in some other existence? Ihad crossed the shingle and begun to climb up the steps. Ithought I should not tell my mother of what had happened— how could I describe it? You would have to experiencesuch a scene for it to have meaning. The boy and I had notspoken. I thought I should tell my mother that I had justgone to look at the sea.
Excerpted from The Hesperides Tree by Nicholas Mosley. Copyright © 2001 by Nicholas Mosley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1995 Dinty W. Moore.All rights reserved.