The Jungle Book

Pauline Melville
The Ventriloquist's Tale
Bloomsbury

A reader might be forgiven for comparing Pauline Melville's debut novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale, to the book that ushered the dreaded term magic realism into the Western lexicon. Indeed, on the surface, The Ventriloquist's Tale and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude have much in common: a century in the life of a large family; an Amazon village far from civilization; witchcraft, madness, strange myths, and tragicomic deaths weaving together into an intoxicating tale. But in One Hundred Years of Solitude, unyielding rain showers, madwomen eating earth, and spontaneous ascents to the heavens are elements of a literary device so prevalent that the saga of Márquez's Buendias family is often a background for the circus in the fore.

Melville seems to understand what dangers lurk behind the untamed image. In The Ventriloquist's Tale, style is subordinate to story, as the ventriloquist/narrator informs us in the novel's prologue: "No more men with members the size of zeppelins and women flapping off into the skies--a frequent occurrence on the other side of the continent." Melville is originally from Guyana, and the vague geographical reference is a pretty clear tweak at Mr. Márquez.

The ventriloquist in question is a crude, prankish, pimplike South American Indian who assures us, amid a torrent of self-congratulatory revelations, that the story he is about to relate is fiction disguised as fact and not the other way around. We have been told the obvious, albeit with such a portentous air that we wonder if the truthisn't more complicated. Melville enjoys playing with narrative conventions, and when the Indian cartoonishly pronounces, "That's all for now, folks. The narrator must appear to vanish. I gone," we begin to feel like reading the novel is no act of free will.

The novel opens in present-day Guyana, a tropical ex-colony where almost nothing works, and what does work eventually breaks down. Chofy McKinnon, one-quarter Scottish, three-quarters Wapisiana Indian, is a small-time farmer and cattle-herder from the village of Moco-moco in the foothills of the Kanaku mountains. Faced with economic and marital problems, Chofy decides to travel to the capital in an effort to find temporary logging work and get some distance from his wife, Marietta. Once in Georgetown, he is summoned to meet Rosa Mendelson, a British literary critic visiting the country to research Evelyn Waugh's 1933 journey through Guyana, which the author immortalized in the story "The Man Who Liked Dickens." Waugh had apparently spent time with the McKinnons in the interior, and Rosa hopes that Chofy will put her in touch with older family members who may remember him.

Chofy and Rosa set out on a journey to the interior, and before we even begin to suspect that a literary critic and an Indian cattle herder could have an eye for each other, they are in bed together, exchanging sexy adulation. Melville frames the encounter to read like modern verse, and the effect is hilarious:

May I lie down with you?

Yes.

May I suck your breasts?

Yes.

You're like a bird. Your body is like a dancer's.

You're so warm. You're so warm.

You're strong.

You're a baby.

Suck me a little.

[....]

There's a cockroach. Quick. Quick. It's gone under the mattress.

Let us not forget that the ventriloquist has only appeared to vanish, and that his tale, which is to say, the book, can depart in any direction it pleases. Soon after we have settled into Chofy and Rosa's story, Melville rewinds the tape to the turn of the century and the arrival of Chofy's Scots grandfather in the Guyanese interior. For nearly the remainder of the novel, we are treated to the bewildering history of the wild, isolated McKinnon family: Alexander McKinnon's obsession with photographing the solar eclipse of 1919; the harum-scarum childhoods of his four children, Danny, Beatrice, Wifreda, and Alice; the arrival of Father Napier, a zealous missionary intent on converting the Wapisiana; Evelyn Waugh's visit in the '30s; and as a kind of crown jewel to the story, the incestuous affair between Danny and Beatrice.

The brother and sister's relationship ravages the McKinnon family, not for its inherent wrongness, but for the eerie way in which it replicates an ancient Wapisiana myth involving the solar eclipse. "We, in this part of the world, have a special veneration for the lie and all its consequences and ramifications," the ventriloquist warns in the prologue.

Returning to that speech for clues, one slowly begins to realize the scope of Melville's subtle ingenuity. The Ventriloquist's Tale isn't merely about a family's fateful downfall, or about how outsiders (McKinnon, Father Napier, Waugh, Rosa) subvert a native culture. It is also about how stories, myths, and lies matter more than facts, outliving them in our memory as the true executors of change.

 
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