Wednesday 9 October 2019

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell - a review

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell is a story about four children who crash into the Amazon 'jungle', survive, meet a lone 'explorer' living in an ancient deserted 'city', leave and very briefly meet up many years later as adults.

It's in some ways a very appealing, tension-filled novel, in which we very soon care about the fate of the children with events seen from the point of view of the older boy, Fred. It seems to have been treated in the children's book world as a 'good book'. Stylistically, there are some intriguing things about the way it's written: odd, quirky dialogue, sudden surprises and shocks, and a particularly odd and intriguing character with the 'explorer'. It's both an adventure and a mystery.

What happens if we chart or map the story using two theories: intertextuality and the notion of the 'colonial gaze'? Intertextuality is not an objective method. You can (perhaps should) use it in order to pursue how it is 'I' react to a story. If I do that, then as I read the book, I found links, memories and reminders of many other texts: 'Swiss Family Robinson', Narnia, Famous Five, 'Lord of the Flies', 'Northern Lights', 'Heart of Darkness' and Genesis - The Garden of Eden story. That is, the motifs, dramatic moments or scenes in the book had echoes (for me) in these other stories. The structure of the story involves the children falling out of the sky, separated from their parents or carers, thrown together, in a 'jungle' - an unknown (to them) place, uninhabited by humans but full of creatures some friendly, some dangerous (to them). One creature is 'attached' to them - a sloth. They meet a strange unknowable man who gives them knowledge but is also judgemental, giving a knowing commentary on them, and the world. We discover that his son died and this changed him. He passes on crucial knowledge which enables them to escape - though this escape is not a banishment. Even so, he urges them to do it. This strange man lives in some sense beyond what is known, though they have reached him through finding a map - also a kind of knowledge. It is possible to see the book as these 'innocent' children finding 'knowledge' which then leads to their exit from a kind of Eden, apparently untouched by humans other than the odd signs from the 'explorer'. He incidentally forbids them to go to his inner sanctum - an instruction they disobey. 

For me, then there are the motifs of the fiction that I mentioned but the overriding myth working in the novel is the Garden of Eden story with its core idea of innocence and knowledge. The motif overall seems to be the 'Robinsonnade' of the enforced departure of the 'western' person/people, the managing or coping with the hostile environment of the 'uninhabited' or nearly uninhabited world and the return from it through the ingenuity of the western protagonist.

If we put the notion of the 'colonial gaze' into the picture, we see that all events in the book are seen in narrative terms through the eyes of Fred, the older boy. Other points of view are revealed to us through dialogue, ie what people say. When we ask the questions of any passage 'who sees', 'who speaks' (ie 'point of view') this shows us who sees what. This is what carries the 'ideology' of the book, the ideas and attitudes of what is sometimes called the 'implied author'. (We don't know if it's the 'author's intention'.) This seeing and saying can be called a 'gaze'. Who does this gaze belong to: white European or post-Columban children and a man. The 'nature' being looked at is uninhabited but invaded by these people and treated as hostile. Clearly, this is not the only gaze available in fiction and I found it strange that it's uninhabited, an echo from the colonial era of treating whole swathes of the earth's surface as 'terra nullius' even though it was in fact inhabited. This territory (in the book) is then occupied, traversed, and treated ultimately as 'belonging' to at the very least the 'explorer' who is trying to keep it secret from the rest of the world but also for him, as if he is the person entitled to guard it, own it even. He has the arcane knowledge needed to tame it and work it to his benefit. 

For me, the book has as its core two guiding myths: the Garden of Eden and the 'colonial gaze' of western entitlement. As an adult reader in 2019, this made me uncomfortable, even as I was 'attracted' to the story and 'cared' about the fates of the children and intrigued by the 'explorer'.