It’s likely those in the know will tell you, when talking about point of view, that you should stick to one, that if you are going to change you shouldn’t do it often, and that if you do do it you should have good reason to. It struck me quite plainly, reading Heligoland, why they tell you this. It disorients. It wrong-foots you as a reader if you don’t notice the little signposts, so you have to go back a paragraph or two and read over. The most important point though is the last one, and Shena Mackay’s reasoning sings out: it’s exactly that sense of fractured understanding that comes through. It underlines just how little you know, just how ‘surface’ our connections with other people can be.
This book is a pendulum, lurching from desperately sad to smilingly optimistic in the space of a sentence or two, and captures that sense of detachment – from ourselves as well as others – with enviable economy. It makes the heart yearn.
You could lift any one of the numerous anecdotal passages from this book and insert the words ‘true story’ after it, without causing the faintest flicker of an eyebrow. I once met a man who insisted – insisted – that you can dip a cup into Mother Ganges’s flowing waters and take a long, soothing drink. He simply would not, or could not accept that it would cure you of all ills – permanently. We shake our doomed western heads at the folly of it all – at the lies each side of the balance tell themselves to appease their state of being. Yet this is the way empires are built – and these are the people who build them. Though it clearly helps, power isn’t just money. Power is what you do with that money, and in many cases what you’re prepared to do to get the money to do it with, and then keep it.
“And they are right, because in all of us is a doubt, that we do not know ourselves at all. We all feel a bit guilty to exist.”
There are places in the world stranger than our own neighbourhood; perhaps that above all else is the reason why we travel. Of course it’s only strange to us for its lack of familiarity, and it elevates the pulse to navigate these places of otherness.
How much stranger it is to navigate another’s life, to meet, trade time and language and feel some level of understanding has been reached. But how do you know? At what point can you be truly sure that you’ve become a character in the world historical sense, or in another person’s life, let alone in your own little fiction.
How strangely we view the things that others hold dear; how cheaply. But that’s the rate you apply. Do you set the Bourse fair? Or have you perhaps aimed to skim a little off the top, entirely unaware that you’ve just passed up the golden gleam of world-historical-sense-character and signed up instead for the lead role in the Story of Stupid.
Funny, and also sad, but definitely thought-provoking.