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Continent, Jim Crace’s first book, consists of seven stories linked by setting, theme and tone. The first, ‘Talking Skull’, tells of a young man whose family fortune comes from selling the milk of hermaphrodite cows for its supposed magical properties. The proceeds from this trade in superstition pay for his education at the city university, and the young man must struggle to reconcile his past (cohesive, rural, yet intellectually and socially primitive) with his prospects for the future. In ‘Cross-Country’, a schoolteacher introduces the quintessentially urban, Western pastime of jogging into a remote village. His anomalous presence disrupts the existing social order in subtle, unintended ways, and he is finally forced to prove himself by running a race through the mountains against the big man of the village, who is on horseback. In the concluding story/episode, ‘The Prospect from the Silver Hill’, an engineer in the vanguard of the government’s programme for exploiting natural resources tries to return to nature instead. Harried deep into the mountains, he is left with nothing but rocks and snow.

Crace’s extraordinary powers of invention and description are used to great effect in filling in the land- and townscapes of his imaginary continent.  


Discussion: the helicopter and the bazaar

From the first, Crace’s work has been extremely well-received. Continent appeared to a chorus of almost unreserved praise from fellow-writers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Writing in the New York Times (June 28, 1987), Robert Olen Butler called it ‘brilliant, provocative and delightful’. Continent won the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the David Higham Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction Prize. The sale of the American rights enabled Crace to leave journalism and concentrate on fiction.

Less than a novel, but more than a collection of stories, Continent dramatises the conflict between tradition and the forces of ‘progress’ – material, intellectual, spiritual – in what we now call the ‘developing world’. Symbols and symbolic actions abound. The bazaar, a place of ‘trade and superstition’, stands for the world of custom; but it seems that the helicopter, symbol and agent of the impersonal, irresistible force of change, is always hovering somewhere nearby.

The conflict is most explicitly presented in section 6, ‘Electricity’. A small town is wired up to receive electricity for the first time. The villagers have always thought of electricity as a quasi-magical force. This ‘gift of Progress’ from the government will bring them undreamt-of advantages: ‘sharp, strong light’ at the touch of a button, fans and air-conditioning in the dry season, ‘ice in every drink’, cinema and other distractions. The schoolteacher, who has lived in Europe and therefore knows about ‘science and light’, cautions that electricity can be ‘addictive’. When the power is finally turned on, a minor disaster results. The villagers return to their old way of seeing electricity as a mysterious force outside human control.

In re-reading this story, I was absorbed by the figure of the schoolteacher. At first he seems to have the villagers’ own interests at heart when he warns against the dangers of electricity. But his own status as the only man with experience of Western ‘science and light’ is clearly at risk from the introduction of electricity to the whole community. At the end of the story we see the schoolteacher somewhat complacently discussing what went wrong. Could his knowledge have been used to make the village’s experiment with electricity a success? Does he oppose the ‘gift of Progress’ on selfish grounds?

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