BOOK REVIEW - THE OLD PEOPLE
REVIEWER: Emma Scanlan, PhD Candidate English Literature, University of Sussex, UK
Title: The Old People. Author: Perry, A. J.
Publisher: Thames River Press, London 2014. 125 pp. Words: 1220
Abstract: A.J. Perry’s novel The Old People is a beautifully crafted story, told in a voice that measures centuries as men measure days. Neither strictly novelistic nor wholly poetic, this allegorical work weaves its narrative around the lives of the eponymous Old People. The knot makers and hole diggers of the narrative span time in such a way that one stands for all, and the whole relies on the contributions of each. The intricacy of Perry’s writing demands concentration from the reader, yet it is never hyperbolic. In clear prose the reader is asked to trace the patterns of human interconnection, and by the time the final knot is tied, one understands that Perry is reaching gently towards the center of what it means to be a part of a world more intricately related than any one human can possibly imagine.
In Hawaiʻi there is a well-known proverb, "I ka 'olelo no ke ola, i ka 'olelo no ka make" which means "In language there is life and in language there is death". The Hawaiian author of The Old People, A.J. Perry, understands this to his core. In The Old People meaning is equally measured between what is said and what is left unsaid, ‘For’, he writes, ‘only silence has no ancestor’. (124) In the culture of the Old People, a misspoken word or a misunderstood metaphor could spell disaster and famine for the community, so a deep respect for the power of words is inherent. In a world where words are spoken only, utterances wield great power, and to speak out of turn is to risk great danger.
The Old People is a beautifully crafted story, told in a voice that measures centuries as men measure days. Neither strictly novelistic nor wholly poetic, this allegorical work weaves its narrative around the lives of the eponymous Old People, who are clearly based on ancient Hawaiian society and metonymic of indigenous people more generally. Adhering neither to traditional modes of characterisation nor a linear chronology, The Old People is not a light read, yet at one hundred and twenty five pages, it is not intimidating either. Perry's choice to leave his characters nameless and the narrative's emphasis on the actions of a communal culture are subtly political. The Old People are not portrayed as individuals, but are known by their trade, and therefore their place (both literally and figuratively) in society. In our (post)modern world of watches and deadlines, quantifiable time is deliciously absent. The knot makers and hole diggers of the narrative span time in such a way that one stands for all, and the whole relies on the contributions of each. For the reader who chooses to relax into the meandering, spare, yet lyrical prose, Perry’s message is clear: those who speak quickly, act unthinkingly and live only for the present are missing a wider connectedness with their world, their past and their future. As modern society is broken and its people are unmoored, Perry is offering a fictionalised portrait of a world that knows an alternative way of being.
The Old People live in a rhythm that is governed by the natural world, and their understanding of life is deeply connected to season, rain and tide. When the time comes for a knot to be tied, so that a child can be born or an old woman can journey on to the next life, the knot maker requires a hole to be dug. This is asked circuitously of the hole digger (for a knot maker cannot dig a hole), who will dig the requested hole after the first rain of the year. The processes that govern the interactions of this community have no beginning nor, it appears, an end. Until one year the rains do not come, and the first hole is not dug and the knot remains untied, the child unborn and the old woman left suspended between journeys.
Whilst Perry’s Old People reflect tropes of indigenous societies around the world, they stop short of becoming a cliché. Rather, Perry crafts their society as an allegory that reminds us that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way. The implication is that every culture shares a pattern of behaviour that dictates those 'right' and 'wrong' ways and we are at risk of hurtling towards a universalised culture that privileges individualism, direct speech and the acquisition of knowledge. The caricature of Euro-American culture is not accidental, and serves as a gentle reminder that to dismiss patterns of traditional behaviour too lightly is to sever the threads of a deeply interconnected society that has value far beyond the sum of its parts.
The society Perry articulates is bound together through tradition and culture, not only to itself, but also to the land, the weather and time. When the first rain fails to fall the rhythmic life of the society seizes, and the potential for starvation and death soon follow. If the rain is read as literal then the inability of the Old People to alter their behaviour to the changing conditions on their island does risk essentializing indigenous societies as inflexible and vulnerable to external pressures and internal deviation. If, however, the rain is read metaphorically as knowledge and memory (the water cycle is, after all, one of the most clearly cyclical natural processes), then, ‘while the rains fall and the river flows the people of the island will begin the long journey back to the ways of their ancestors: of distinguishing day from night and light from darkness.’ (86) Individuals who grow lax with the traditional ways, or in desperation begin to abandon them, (by speaking directly or taking knowledge before they have earned it) court hunger and death through drought and famine. Yet in the act of remembering, they regain the power to heal the community.
Whilst individuals are defined primarily by their profession, these are defined along familial and gender roles. Those brought up at the bosom of Western feminism may experience more than a prickle of discomfort at the clearly delimited gender roles and the long list of things that the women of the Old People may not do. Neither the ability to bear children is questioned, nor is the inevitability of doing so. There is no role for the women of The Old People that is not related to their men or their children, yet there is none for the men that is not connected to their families and their community. Without individual achievement, there can be no discussion of individual rights or choices. A textual analysis of The Old People within the framework of western epistemology is always going to feel awkward, as the novel's inspiration is drawn from knowledge for which such frameworks do not account. To appreciate Perry's craft in The Old People means the relaxation of received analytical skills and an openness towards his delicate negation of one's ego.
The dimension-bending temporality of The Old People is perhaps its seminal achievement, as it represents the most thorough rejection of the tyranny of linear time’s agents: fixed history, the ever-vanishing present and the ungraspable future. The Old People exist in a through-time, a present that reaches both backward and forward, and gives the feeling that each temporality clasps hands with the other, in a circle made actual by the repetition of actions by each generation.
The intricacy of Perry’s writing demands concentration from the reader, yet it is never hyperbolic. In clear prose the reader is asked to trace the patterns of human interconnection, rather like finding one’s way to the centre of a maze, twisting and turning along circuitous roots, taking patience, but drawn ineluctably towards the reward at the centre. By the time the final knot is tied, one understands that Perry is reaching gently towards the centre of what it means to be a part of a world more intricately related than any one human can possibly imagine. Lyrically drawn and deeply understood The Old People is a chapter in a greater story of indigeneity that has roots as deep as the tallest koa tree and a heart as ancient as the volcanoes of Hawaiʻi.