Book-The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage
Publication-David Fickling Books
Price- Rs 599
As epic endings go, the final pages of The Amber Spyglass — the last of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — are difficult to surpass. Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry put an end to God, a mundane desert that is the afterlife, fall in love to save the multiverse and must live apart for the same reasons. Paradise was lost in Pullman’s fantasy world, and that was welcome, because paradise is a dangerous lie as are the churches that promise it. For those who read His Dark Materials as children (and likely re-read it as adults), La Belle Sauvage is another chance to enter a world where a repressive church and state try to control diversity, sexuality and knowledge.
But while Northern Lights (the first part of the original trilogy) began in a baroque Oxford in a parallel universe, La Belle Sauvage is set in the countryside about a decade before the events in the previous trilogy. Malcolm Polstead, the protagonist, (quite unlike Lyra) is the ideal boy: His parents run a pub in Oxford, he loves his canoe – the La Belle Sauvage, is curious about literature and science and is quite the handyman.
Malcom gradually gets involved with an anti-Church espionage unit through Dr Hannah Relf and with Lyra, a baby that is the product of scandal and intrigue in the highest political circles. The spectre of Dust — an elementary particle that disproves the idea of soul/spirit — haunts the book. We learn more about characters from the original trilogy and exactly how Lyra came to be raised at Jordan college in Oxford, her parents’ separation and the political rivalries that define her world, the nature of the alethiometer — a truth-telling device that operates through Dust. Figures like Farder Coram, wise and decrepit in the original, are seen in their prime as spies. Pullman’s affinity for biblical metaphors makes itself felt through the second half of the book. The La Belle Sauvage turns into Noah’s Ark and Malcolm and Alice (a working-class girl who turns a friend) try to get Lyra to safety through a flood of magical and mythical proportions.
The plot and pace of La Belle Sauvage pale in comparison to Northern Lights. As a hero, Malcolm is simply too white-bread, although there are portends of the character going down dark, complex paths in the future. The book feels like a long setup to the sequel, which one hopes will move a little faster, go a little deeper. There is also the fact that for those who haven’t read His Dark Materials, much of the context of La Belle Sauvage will be difficult to decipher. Simply put, Pullman needed a better editor. But what makes The Book of Dust worth reading, especially for young people, is that Pullman has lost none of his courage when it comes to dealing with sexuality and how politics and religion seek to control it.
In Pullman’s world, personhood is divided in two — the human form and an animal (ever-changing for children and fixed post-puberty). People’s “daemons” represent their sentience and sexuality, which are in some ways for all of us, inextricably linked. The villain in La Belle Sauvage, for example, is a manipulator and abuser of children. He hates his hyena-daemon and abuses and beats her mercilessly.
With remarkable subtlety and skill, Pullman manages to convey the nervous excitement of receiving sexual attention from a practised predator, especially when one is ignorant of the ways of such people, and the wave of queasiness that comes when we realise what happened, what was at stake. He explores the cruelty of children, the wilderness that is adolescence without knowledge, safety and friendship and does so with honesty. Two-thirds through the book, in a moment of anger and vulnerability, Alice uses a barrage of f-words. It displays her weakness, her rage and Pullman has the sense to know that his young readers need not be shielded from that. That in the correct context, teenage readers can make sense of most things.
Pullman has matured in his understanding of religion since His Dark Materials as well. He has moved from a Richard Dawkins-like dismissal of religion to a more nuanced take. While the church-state is still the villain, a priory run by kind, accepting nuns also finds pride of place in La Belle Sauvage. Pullman shows how religion is a refuge for those defeated by life, that piety need not make one conservative and controlling.
Despite being less tightly paced, La Belle Sauvage could well find greater resonance than its predecessors. Religion is back with a bang in politics, as is a right-wing that is keen to tell its people what kind of citizens they should be. Reading Pullman can teach children and adults alike that identities we are born into — nationality, religion, gender — are just that, and not something that needs to be proved.