Michael Jones examines the work of Peter Carter who has twice been awarded the Observer prize for teenage fiction; this year for Bury the Dead.
‘To keep one’s eye on heaven and one’s feet on the muddy earth and not overbalance is a gift, a rare one, but some possess it.’ These words apply, not just to one of Peter Carter’s characters (in Madatan), but to the author himself. His books are the antithesis of commercially crafted ‘teenage readers’ which confine rather than challenge the reader’s imagination. They can be demanding in terms of historical context, emotional power and linguistic level, yet they have a sufficiently wide appeal to be translated into seventeen languages. What gives them that appeal, and what makes it so important that they should form part of every secondary school’s reading provision?
Peter Carter often uses the past to gain a perspective on the present. In his first book, Madatan, the novel which he acknowledges as having an autobiographical basis transferred through time, it says of the central character’… as he learned to read he began to understand the width of the world, to realise that it had a history, going far back into time. And as he felt the pressure of the past, he began to have a paradoxical sense of freedom from the present.’ Madatan is prefaced with a quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets. It is hardly surprising to find within it that ‘the past pointed to the future, and past and future gave meaning and purpose to the present’. Books can offer young readers a perspective on themselves, especially books like Peter Carter’s which contain ideas that are ‘like chinks in the vast doors of time’.
Reading the books and talking to their author brings a deeper engagement with ultimate questions about life. What a piece of work is man (or woman) when faced with cataclysmic pressures which no individual can resist, but which some can endure with a dignity that evokes admiration’? His books are usually located at crucial moments of cultural confrontation, in times of transition when the pressures on people seem greater than in periods of comparative stability. His characters live in border country such as that between Christianity and Islam in The Children of the Book (his first Observer prize winner), between the pre-industrial world of hand loom weavers and the new machine age in The Black Lamp or between the clashing economies and ideologies of slavers and abolitionists in The Sentinels (winner of the Guardian award).
Such historical contexts are not divorced from contemporary concerns. The origin of The Children of the Book, based around the greatest Ottoman attack on Christendom in the 17th century, was a stroll in Regent’s Park. Peter Carter noticed the nearby mosque and started to do research into earlier Islamic ‘invasions’. The Black Lamp, with its indignation against the sacrificing at Peterloo of people to profit says more about the recent miners’ strike than many a contemporary analysis. As Peter Carter agreed, had he ever written directly about that strike, he would have put his verbal camera behind the miners’ lines. Being a writer who does not evoke simplistic emotional responses however, he might well have decided to place another camera behind the police.
His presentation of multiple perspectives in his later novels is both obvious and important. When he writes about Northern Ireland in Under Goliath he does not espouse or despise ’causes’ such as Catholicism or Protestantism. Instead he makes us feel ‘a rage at borders without meaning except that they divide the hearts of men’. If there is such a border in our world, it is surely the Berlin Wall, the setting for Peter Carter’s latest novel, Bury the Dead.
The central character in Bury the Dead is (untypically for this writer) female. Erika, aged 16 and with the talent to become an international high-jumper, lives with her very ordinary East German family almost within sight of the Wall, known officially as ‘the Anti-Fascist Barrier’. This is border country, literally, and the ignorant armies of Eastern and Western attitudes clash by night and by day. Proving one of Peter Carter’s recurrent themes, that ‘the past climbs from its grave, though it be buried never so deep’ (The Black Lamp), smiling Uncle Karl, a prosperous West German businessman thought to have died long ago, erupts into the life of Erika’s family. With him comes ‘the endless resurrection of the vile, unspeakable deeds of Nazism’. The facade of humanity cracks, revealing the beast within and for Erika ‘it was as if in her world of steady normality a door had opened a crack giving her a glimpse into another world; one bizarre and twisted and deformed and into which she did NOT want to look but which she now knew was there just the same, a sort of fourth dimension of horror.’
As readers we are shown different perspectives on the horror that haunts our world and the world of these novels. We can identify with those who help a war criminal to escape, we appreciate that a slave trader’s life is not an easy one and we can even understand in Madatan that it is possible to feel that trust is an illusion, love a weakness and that ‘the only way to live unhurt was to cut oneself off from humanity’. Peter Carter’s characters have that ambiguity about them that insists that every man is, and is not, an island. His characters are trapped in a history which is never entirely of their own making, struggling to preserve some sense of what it is to be human whilst carried on the torrents of time. Many would have wished to live differently, but with a stubborn adherence to life’ they survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and manage to stay, in Peter Carter’s phrase, ‘half-way decent’. The focus is not on one of life’s generals, but on a number of the ‘poor bloody infantry’. As readers we are caught in a web of feeling, offering simultaneous sympathies to the infantry on all sides. This forces us to try to hold the whole world of the novel in our heads and therefore to enter the border country of the moral imagination, judging not quickly that we be not quickly judged. Such an experience helps us to develop as readers increasingly prepared for the richest complexities that the novel can offer.
The nearest we come to a recognisable hero is in one of his least accessible novels, The Gates of Paradise, which is based very closely on William Blake’s life. Blake, an ‘ordinary’ man with extraordinary vision, is a powerful reference point for Peter Carter. Both are fiercely independent about what they write, both are anti-hierarchical, both react against man’s inhumanity to man and both tell the truth as they see it about people on the receiving end. How many contemporary novelists when given as free a hand as O.U.P. give to Peter Carter would have chosen to write about the siege of Vienna in 1683? How many other novelists make such valuably disturbing demands on the capacity, the stamina and sensitivity of the reader?
Margaret Meek, writing of books which we give to children, says that the only reading rule which really works is that the book offered must show that the giver values the reader. The parallel here between teachers and authors is an important one – we need to experience, to share and to celebrate authors whose books are written in such a way as to show that the writer values the reader. At a time when, even in the book world, there are those who would insult or enslave the moral imagination of young readers, just for profit, we need the true fictions of sentinels like Peter Carter.
Bury the Dead (0 19 271493 7, £8.95), like all Peter Carter’s novels, is published by Oxford University Press.
Under Goliath is available in paperback from Puffin (0 14 03.1132 7, £1.75).