Wednesday 25 April 2012

Penguin no. 2157: Robinson
by Muriel Spark

If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and a landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters - how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.

Miles Mary Robinson is a recluse who lives most of the year alone, save for the company of the young orphaned child Miguel, on his isolated and strangely human-shaped island, also called Robinson, somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean. He is a Catholic who once studied for the priesthood, refusing to be ordained because of his hostility to the worship of the Virgin Mary. He seems rational and capable, but also dour and unemotional. Despite his Catholicism, his traits seem almost Protestant, with his anti-Marian obsession, his cerebral and scholarly focus, and his life of reflection rather than action. He seems to eschew notions of self-sufficiency, choosing to make his home in a few rooms of an established house on a plateau on the mountainside, living off tinned food and cigarettes while the gardens and plantations go uncultivated and untended. Only one plantation on Robinson is maintained and harvested, with all the work undertaken by a visiting workforce. Robinson's time is spent with his books, developing arguments against Marian beliefs. These books carry the motto Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus (Never less alone than when alone).

The crash of an Azores-bound plane on the mist-covered slope of his mountain disrupts his solitary life. He must bury the dead, and nurse, house and feed the three injured survivors. And then he must endure their company for months, as the boat which brings the plantation workers and delivers his provisions is not expected for another 12 weeks, and until it arrives there is no way for any of them to leave the island or to alert the outside world of their survival. The survivors must therefore endure a forced retreat, aware that their relatives believe them dead, and unable to continue with their lives or exercise any control over what is happening in their absence.

Robinson's unwelcome guests are January Marlow, the only woman on the island and a recent convert to Catholicism, Jimmie Waterford, a man who is partly Dutch and who speaks English with an unusual syntax and vocabulary gleaned from books of poetry and American soldiers, and the difficult Tom Wells, a peddler of good luck charms and owner of the magazine Your Future.

On the surface, it reads as a mystery novel. It has an isolated location, and five characters who barely know or trust each other, and when Robinson suddenly and unexpectedly disappears, the weak bonds forming between them quickly disintegrate. There is never any sense, though, that the explanation of Robinson's disappearance matters. Instead, the story concentrates on the effect of his absence on the other characters, as they form their suspicions and work out strategies either to ensure their own safety, or to take advantage of the opportunities suddenly available.

From the first sentence Spark blurs the line between what is real and what is not. January narrates the story in retrospect, having returned to her London life with mementos which attest to the reality of all that occurred. But this is an account of the thoughts and memories triggered by her reading of passages from the journal she wrote during her island sojourn, and looking back she thinks of the island as illusory, as 'a landscape of the mind', perhaps an understandable perspective on a time and place that can never be revisited, but also hinting that the story is to be perceived allegorically.

And yet with what meaning? In her resistance to Robinson's authority and beliefs, it may be the story of a woman seeking independence in a male-dominated world, insisting on the recognition of the female role in society and religion. Or it may be a study of superstition, with January offering a moderate position between the extremes of Tom Wells, beguiling the unwary with his fake charms, and the strictly rational Robinson, refusing to acknowledge any place for the unexplainable. Or in the portrayal of Tom Wells it may offer a study of evil, of how it takes what it can and makes the most of any opportunity, and of how the good and decent have inadequate weapons with which to fight. Or perhaps it is only the story of this one woman attempting to assert her independence from all men, for the problems which beset January on Robinson reflect the ones she deals with as a widowed single mother in Chelsea, and she finds herself noticing similarities between the men who have come into her life through being trapped on the island, and the men who have married into her family. The island experience seems to give her new insight into dealing with the life she returns to.

Perhaps oddly I found my sympathy was frequently with Robinson as he coped with having his ordered life disrupted by these unsought and ungrateful visitors, but it was clear that it was meant to be with the narrator January. At times I found it a perplexing book with its varying possible interpretations, so that there was always the sense that if I only knew a little more psychology or a little more theology, the author's intentions would seem more transparent. Despite lacking the humour and quirkiness of Memento Mori, it held my interest, and kept me reflecting afterwards on what it all must mean.

Also by Muriel Spark:
Penguin no. 1546: Memento Mori

Links to all posts from MSRW:
Harriet Devine's Spark roundup
Stuck in a Book's review roundup


  1. Another fantastic cover. Makes me want to find this one and put it at the top of my Spark pile.

  2. I never thought this would be one of Spark's novels I'd be interested in, but this is the third review of it I've read this week, and each time I am increasingly keen to try it out!

  3. I like sound of this I m new to spark and this one sounds very quirky ,I love cover of to sheffield to shop that sell lot old books so hope to pick up another one of her books ,all the best stu

  4. Great review! I really enjoyed this one - the whole what is retrospect/what is real thing worked so well - it made me uneasy the whole way through.

  5. Might finish this someday. I like Muriel Spark, just not feelin' her right now.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...