book review: Pincher Martin

The one word that keeps coming back when you think of this book is bubbles. Not the large things children blow around the garden but the small numerous bubbles that float to the surface as someone struggles for life in the water. As this is almost like a stream of consciousness the idea of bubbles floating like ideas up to the water is one the seems apt.

This novel by William Golding is the sort of thing that you would be handed as part of your coursework if you were studying English Lit. The reason is not just because it is a great work of imagination but it also has that sense of being written in the 60s as almost perfect fodder for polytechnic teachers.

The story centres on a single person – Christopher Martin – as he struggles to survive after his boat is sunk by a U-boat torpedo. The Second World War is in full flow and as he struggles for life the last thing he can remember is falling into the water and kicking his sea boots off. He manages to get washed to a rock and clamber onto it and then it becomes a battle to survive and keep morale hoping for rescue.

The rock is described in detail and named by the narrator to make it easier for the reader to remember and the memories of pre-war life as well as the moments before the sinking come back in waves. Also on board the ship was an old acquaintance who has married the girl that he loved. There is a sense that he has wronged people in his life.

There is also a sense that the trial on the rock island, where he sustains himself by drinking trapped rain water and sea life, is somehow something he has tempted. This sense increases during a storm when Martin seems to lose his mind and fear that supernatural powers are coming for him.

Presumably he could have stayed on the rock for quite a while longer going mad or possibly being rescued. But the twist comes with the shifting of the scene to a dead body being washed up on a remote island like the Shetlands where there are a couple of locals discussing the body. One comments that his death would have been quick because he didn’t even have time to kick off his sea boots.

What then is the book about if Martin has been dead all along? Is it some sort of religious allegory about purgatory and the fact that given the chance to consider a life most of us would find ourselves guilty of cruelty? Alternatively is it some sort of dream of what could have been raising the question of whether or not it was better to die quickly and relatively painlessly instead of living in the hope of being rescued and finally losing your mind?

Of course the essays that have been written on those questions are probably legion. I personally like to think that it is a case of the former, bearing in mind my recollection of Lord of the Flies, with Christopher Martin showing that in the space and forced confinement of being shipwrecked we all have to face our demons, which are lying in us all.

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