Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is not, you may think, the most alluring of titles. Nevertheless this is a very good novel.
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul
by David Adams Richards
Sandstone Press, 304pp, £8.99
David Adams Richards is a Canadian writer who has won Canada’s top literary award, the Governor-General’s Prize. Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief, has called him “one of the exceptional writers of our time”, and this novel is good enough to justify such high praise.
It is first a murder mystery, but, though years after the death, Markus Paul, an adolescent at the time, later an officer in the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), will find the solution to the crime, Richards is more interested in its social and political consequences, and one of the novel’s themes is the corrupting power of rumour, the lie, and prejudice, all of which feed off each other.
The setting is the maritime province of New Brunswick, and most of the action takes place in the Native Indian reservation. Hector, a young tribe member, exceptional in that he is about go to university to study medicine, gets a temporary job loading a cargo ship. A load slips and he is killed. But is it an accident? The man who hitched the load to the crane, Roger Savage, had hoped to get a job that morning.
At odds with the Indians, Roger is naturally suspect. His plight becomes worse when an ambitious young journalist takes an interest in the case, but he resolutely holds his ground, and his defiant obstinacy leads to violence and another tragedy. Meanwhile the author has cunningly planted the information which accounts for the circumstances of Hector’s death, even before it takes place, though it will be more than 20 years before Markus Paul realises its significance.
Injustice breeds injustice. History has made the Micmacs, members of the First Nation, victims for generations. Now their inherited resentment is directed at Roger and Hector’s delinquent half-brother, who bullied the boy when he was alive, takes the lead in the agitation. The deputy chief, Isaac, a natural politician, goes with the crowd, losing his authority as the momentum quickens. Only the wise old chief, Amos Paul, Markus’s grandfather, stands out against the hysteria; he knows Roger, recognises that he is difficult, but does not believe that he is guilty.
Amos is “uncomfortable” when a newspaper editor speaks of “the progress of the case”: “For Amos was one of these old-fashioned men seen in every race, who do not believe in progress when it concerns the hearts of men. He saw that every generation believed they would be the generation to set things straight, and no generation did”.
It is Amos who, steadily and painstakingly, collects the evidence which will later set his grandson on the right track.
Markus himself is a finely drawn character; he has learned about life and human nature from his grandfather, and educates himself by reading. He remembers, in Paradise Lost, Milton “suggested that politics had started in hell – hell is where it became fashionable. In this hell, such as it was, people cozied up to ideas they didn’t even believe in – wrote columns about things they knew to be false to promote an idea of justice they themselves didn’t share.”
One always tends to write or speak about novels in the terms of the ideas. This is fair enough; the ideas are there. But one also does so because it is easier. This is indeed a novel of ideas, and the ideas explored are interesting and important, but it is also a novel which offers so many other satisfactions and pleasures.
David Adam Richards is a keen observer and a master of the significant detail. He recreates the frequently harsh life of the reservation compellingly. He presents us with a wide range of characters all of them evoked with understanding and sympathy. He recognises that, while people have free will and are responsible for their actions, they are also the products of their environment and their experience, and therefore often judge and act unwisely.
It is remarkable that such a fine novel, by an author whose standing in Canada is so high, should have escaped the attention of all the major London imprints, and should instead come to us from a small publisher which is based in Dingwall. All the better of course for Sandstone Press. They are to be congratulated on their enterprise, and thanked for making such a good novel available here in the UK.
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