I picked up William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors last week on a colleague’s recommendation. It’s the story of a band of Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. Golding’s Neanderthals seem to possess a near-telepathic power–they share “pictures,” comprising memory, sentiment, words, and ideas. The Neanderthals live fully in the moment, often struggling to recall “pictures” of past events. The viewpoint character Lok is something of a holy fool. His quest to retrieve a missing comrade often finds him laughing in terror.
Golding’s prose is, for the most part, an evocation of concrete contours—sure, there’s a metaphysical dimension to these Neanderthals (they worship Oa, a female spirit)—but Golding’s concern is primarily with capturing how the physical world might be understood through the senses and then converted into “pictures.” A longish passage to showcase Golding’s technique:
The bushes twitched again. Lok steadied by the tree and gazed. A head and a chest faced him, half-hidden. There were white bone things behind the leaves and hair. The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.
The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice.
His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it. He smelled along the shaft of the twig. The leaves on the twig were red feathers and reminded him of goose. He was lost in a generalized astonishment and excitement.
Lok encounters a new kind of being (a human) wielding a new technology (a bow and poisoned arrows), and tries to fit them into his schema—but his “pictures” are insufficient. The concrete, sense-driven passage concludes in the abstraction of “astonishment and excitement.”
I’m about forty pages from the end of The Inheritors, and I’ve enjoyed it so far. It’s something like a sci-fi novel, really, or even something in the mode of Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman. Good stuff.