Robinson, Muriel Spark
Candia McWilliams’s claim in her introduction to the Birlinn centenary edition of Muriel Spark’s Robinson that she, McWilliams, was reputed at school to have “swallowed a thesaurus”, places her in excellent company. Muriel Spark’s diction is, she says, “so clear that it frees the mind to apprehend things unsaid” in the way in which poetry is dense with meaning; Spark was “first a poet; and always a poet,” and a Scots poet at that, she adds.
Robinson is a tiny island in the Mediterranean, cut off from the rest of the world in the 1950s and curiously reminiscent of some rocky, ling-covered outcrop in the Hebrides. Shaped vaguely like the human body, Robinson is owned by the eccentric, erudite and manipulative anti-Catholic, Miles Mary Robinson, who has inherited a substantial fortune made in a motor scooter business on the mainland. A recent air accident, in which most passengers lost their lives, has left a few injured souls, destined to spend the days of their recovery stranded, presumed dead by their families, waiting for the arrival of the pomegranate boat to carry them back to civilisation. Tom Wells, a purveyor of trash in the form of a suitcase full of magic amulets, is already at odds with survivor January (“never Jan”) Marlow. Marlow, a clear- headed young widow with an equally unfazed adult son, Brian, back home, narrates the story in her journal at the behest of Robinson. Jimmie Waterford, a Dutch relative of Robinson’s, befriends January to the point where Wells refers to him as “your boyfriend”.
Robinson’s ward, the child Miguel, interprets events in his own particular way. His shamanistic relationship with the hills and shoreline of the island, his habit of appearing and disappearing in inexplicable ways recall a Shakespearean Ariel. He leads January and Jimmie along hidden pathways in the hills and through claustrophobically narrow tunnels into a secret cave. A sense of danger and unknowable evil is never far away, embodied in the roiling, fiery centre of a volcano which is said to scream whenever an object or a living being falls, or is thrown, into it. The volcano and the rotting bodies of the victims of the crash create their own mythology and an inexplicable attraction for the inhabitants, both permanent and temporary, of Robinson.
Miles Mary Robinson’s disappearance, his supposed murder, orchestrated by himself, and subsequent, unexplained reappearance, become a vehicle for a Machiavellian scenario. The survivors, left to their own devices and in charge of Miguel, suspect each other of having committed Robinson’s murder. The chief suspect, Tom Wells, brandishes a pistol at January, demanding that she hand over her journals, whilst Jimmie imagines himself to be heir to all that was Robinson’s.
Spark’s story is one of paganism and Christianity rejected, amalgamating on many levels the stories of other mythological and fictional islands – Crusoe’s island; Golding’s Lord of the Flies (where a plane crash is the precursor to the narrative of a community of survivors); Homer’s Sirens and the rotting bodies of the sailors; Shakespeare’s The Tempest – Robinson himself as Prospero and Miguel as Ariel. Robinson’s plane crash might just as well have been the shipwrecks of Crusoe, The Tempest or The Odyssey.
Robinson’s dialogue is unswervingly confident. Tom Wells’s brash speech grates against Jimmie’s quaint, poetic form of English, taught to him by a Swiss uncle, overlaid with an American slang acquired during the war. January Marlow’s line is English and precise, whereas Miguel’s language, learned principally from Robinson, is at the same time childish and oddly sophisticated.
Profoundly rooted in the traditions of mythology, Spark’s narrative is at once poetic and entertaining. A book to return to and reinterpret many times.