Raw-boned Allegory

The Field of the Cloth of Gold: Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills, the bus-driving English author, has written eight novels and ‘The Restraint of Beasts’ from among them has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Names as hallowed and as diverse as Kafka, Beckett and Pinter have been invoked while talking of his writing. But I came upon his ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ without knowing any of this and his style did strike me as unique from the very first sentence.

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The Great Field is a piece of land surrounded on three sides by a river and the fourth by wilderness. The land is damp but fertile and settlers fromdifferent parts come to pitch their tents here. “For a select few … it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.” When the unnamed narrator of the book arrives with his tent, there is only Hen who claims to be the first settler, though there is the impression of another pitch in the South-East.  Thomas, the owner of this perfectly octagonal tent returns, with his majestic beard and flowing white robes. Isabella, the only female character in the book, comes next in a boat fabricated entirely from reeds,   pitching her tent of bright crimson red with exotic belongings such as an eiderdown, a tapestry and a collection of velvet cushions.  She has the habit of swimming naked in the river and is not perturbed when Thomas meets her on the river bank after her bath as she is drying herself.  Then come Hartopp and Brigant, the latter perceiving a hint of a slope dividing the field to upper and lower halves.

The first sign of tension in the narrative appears with the arrival of a group of men dressed in buff-coloured uniform led by Julian, an imposing man with a purple sash.  They pitch their buff-coloured tents with white pennants on the peak with the letter J emblazoned on it.  It is clear they believe in organization and order. When he asks the narrator who is in charge and gets ‘Nobody’ as a reply, he remarks, ‘Really? That’s an odd arrangement.’ In time, Juian disappears, but a bigger and better-organized group, all its members dressed in buff tunics, settle around the same area.  The group has a routine of blowing a loud bugle thrice a day to announce morning, midday and evening. They have a community kitchen and the book begins with a messenger from the group inviting everyone to come with their own dishes and spoons and help them finish the surplus milk pudding they seemed to have produced by mistake.

A few pages into the book and you sense that perhaps it is some kind of an allegory. As you read on you surmise that the Great Field is perhaps Britain itself. But the parallels are not at all made clear. J could stand for Julius Caesar and the latter intruders the Romans, followed by the Vikings. The figure of Hippo, making his appearance towards end of the book, is very clearly a metaphor for religion, specifically Christianity. Then again, Mills does not encourage you to dwell too much on these historical parallels. One is just expected to enjoy the story and what one is led to speculate upon are the themes that the writer is exploring through it: migration, colonization, interplay of power between groups, shifting loyalties, persecution of minorities and so on.

But what can get a little frustrating is the absence of details, not only as an allegory but also in description of everyday life. Isabella bathes in the river nude, what about the others? We see some of the settlers baking biscuits. But where do the provisions come from? Apart from pitching the tents and maintaining them and walking about, what do the settler do throughout the day? We do not find any mention of agriculture, or hunting, or fishing.

Obviously the sparseness of the narrative is deliberately adopted stylistic choice. In some ways it works and in some ways it does not. You wish you could know more about the minds and the lives of all these characters, but you know the author won’t oblige. However, the formal, old-style prose is very well crafted and it has its cadence, helping you sail through the book without any effort. The characters are distinctly etched and they lodge themselves in your mind as droll, distinct entities, without us having to worry about what or whom they symbolize. Their interactions are engaging and are tinged with gentle comedy.

So, even if ‘ The Field of Cloth of Gold’  doesn’t quite feel like  a full meal, you suspect it is perhaps on purpose and the unique flavour of Mills’ writing, like the surplus milk pudding made by the people in buff tunics,  makes you want to come back for more.

(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)                                                                                                                                                                                    

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