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Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #sf

The Crystal World

BOOK: The Crystal World
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The opening sequence of J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World, in which Dr. Edward Sanders begins his journey through Cameroon to visit his friends, Max and Elizabeth Clair, is reminiscent of Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps or the film "The African Queen." Ballard does a wonderful job of portraying a Cameroon which is still inhabited by a relatively large number of European colonizers, although his characters have a tendency to be more altruistic. Sanders runs a leper colony while the Clairs have set up a clinic in the interior of Cameroon.
The characters who aren't altruistic are somewhat shady. Sanders gets involved with the gun-toting Ventress while still on the first leg of his journey and later meets the mine-owner, Thorensen. Although Sanders talks with each man individually, neither really reveal anything of this history, although it becomes clear that their destinies are tied to each other. Similarly, Father Balthus, a priest who is questioning his beliefs, is seen more as a shadowy figure than as an individual. Part of this shadiness is Sanders apparent inability to firmly connect with any of the characters he comes into contact with, including Louise Peret, the American journalist with whom he has an affair, and the Clairs, who are such good friends he will brave the rigors of travel to see them.
As the first leg of his journey ends, Sanders begins to suspect that all is not right at Mont Royal, where the Clairs have their clinic. During his brief stay in Port Matarre, Sanders sees some exquisite crystal work which seems to have come from the interior, near Mont Royal. The appearance in the harbor of a man whose body has been crystalized confirms that something strange is going on and Sanders, along with Louise, begin their journey to Mont Royal, he to see his friends, she to find out what happened to her colleagues.
The second part of the novel takes place once Sanders has arrived in Mont Royal. By now he knows the secret, that the jungle is turning everything in it to crystal. This change effects organic and inorganic objects equally, and a thin crystaline shell covers the river. Neither Sanders nor Ballard seem to be particularly interested in what is causing the crystalization, although Ballard does create an esoteric explanation which does not seem particularly likely.
Although Sanders is the thread that ties everyone's stories together in Mont Royal, he actually seems to have little sustained interaction with any of the other characters. Instead, he spends enough time with each of them to heighten the air of mystery about them without shedding any light on their histories, motives or the strange occurences in the jungle. It is of note that the most interesting character Sanders deals with, who gives him the most information, is one of the most minor characters in the novel, Kwanga.
While Ballard manages to evoke the setting of colonial Africa, his story and the characters are not particularly compelling. The Crystal World is definitely a novel written in the 1960s, and although the drug culture is not explicit in the novel, the book does have an hallucinatory quality which evokes the use of drugs. If the reader is looking for plot or character, The Crystal World falls short. If the goal is to find evocative prose and a strong sense of locale, then The Crystal World is a novel to look for.
Steven H Silver
J.G. Ballard
The Crystal World
By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest, and jeweled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown...
I. Equinox
1 The dark river
Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary. After many delays, the small passenger steamer was at last approaching the line of jetties, but although it was ten o'clock the surface of the water was still gray and sluggish, leaching away the somber tinctures of the collapsing vegetation along the banks.
At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilions of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle.
This pervading auroral gloom, broken by sudden inward shifts of light, Dr. Sanders had noticed during his long wait at the rail of the passenger deck. For two hours the steamer had sat out in the center of the estuary, now and then blowing its whistle at the shore in a half-hearted way. But for the vague sense of uncertainty induced by the darkness over the river, the few passengers would have been driven mad with annoyance. Apart from a French military landing craft, there seemed to be no other vessels of any size berthed along the jetties. As he watched the shore, Dr. Sanders was almost certain that the steamer was being deliberately held off, though the reason was hard to see. The steamer was the regular packet boat from Libreville, with its weekly cargo of mail, brandy and automobile spare parts, not to be postponed for more than a moment by anything less than an outbreak of the plague.
Politically, this isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic was still recovering from an abortive coup ten years earlier, when a handful of rebels had seized the emerald and diamond mines at Mont Royal, fifty miles up the Matarre River. Despite the presence of the landing craft-a French military mission supervised the training of the local troops-life in the nondescript port at the river mouth seemed entirely normal. Watched by a group of children, a jeep was at that moment being unloaded. People wandered along the wharves and through the arcades in the main street, and a few outriggers loaded with jars of crude palm oil drifted past on the dark water toward the native market to the west of the port.
Nevertheless, the sense of unease persisted. Puzzled by the dim light, Dr. Sanders turned his attention to the inshore areas, following the river as it made a slow clockwise turn to the southeast. Here and there a break in the forest canopy marked the progress of a road, but otherwise the jungle stretched in a flat olive-green mantle toward the inland hills. Usually the forest roof would have been bleached to a pale yellow by the sun, but even five miles inland Dr. Sanders could see the dark green arbors towering into the dull air like immense cypresses, somber and motionless, touched only by faint gleams of light.
Someone drummed impatiently at the rail, sending a stir down its length, and the half-dozen passengers on either side of Dr. Sanders shuffled and muttered to one another, glancing up at the wheelhouse, where the captain gazed absently at the jetty, apparently unperturbed by the delay.
Dr. Sanders turned to Father Balthus, who was standing a few feet away on his left. "The light-have you noticed it? Is there an eclipse expected? The sun seems unable to make up its mind."
The priest was smoking steadily, his long fingers drawing the cigarette half an inch from his mouth after each inhalation. Like Sanders, he was gazing, not at the harbor, but at the forest slopes far inland. In the dull light his thin scholar's face seemed tired and fleshless. During the three-day journey from Libreville he had kept to himself, evidently distracted by some private matter, and only began to talk to his table companion when he learned of Dr. Sanders's post at the Fort Isabelle leper hospital. Sanders gathered that he was returning to his parish at Mont Royal after a sabbatical month, but there seemed something a little too plausible about this explanation, which he repeated several times in the same automatic phrasing, unlike his usual hesitant stutter. However, Sanders was well aware of the dangers of imputing his own ambiguous motives for coming to Port Matarre to those around him.
Even so, at first Dr. Sanders had suspected that Father Balthus might not be a priest at all. The self-immersed eyes and pale neurasthenic hands bore all the signatures of the impostor, perhaps an expelled novice still hoping to find some kind of salvation within a borrowed soutane. However, Father Balthus was entirely genuine, whatever that term meant and whatever its limits. The first officer, the steward and several of the passengers recognized him, complimented him on his return and generally seemed to accept his isolated manner.
"An eclipse?" Father Balthus flicked his cigarette stub into the dark water below. The steamer was now overrunning its own wake, and the veins of foam sank down through the deeps like threads of luminous spittle. "I think not, Doctor. Surely the maximum duration would be eight minutes?"
In the sudden flares of light over the water, reflected off the sharp points of his cheeks and jaw, a harder profile for a moment showed itself. Conscious of Sanders's critical eye, Father Balthus added as an afterthought, to reassure the doctor: "The light at Port Matarre is always like this, very heavy and penumbral- do you know Bocklin's painting, ' Island of the Dead,' where the cypresses stand guard above a cliff pierced by a hypogeum, while a storm hovers over the sea? It's in the Kunstmuseum in my native Basel- " He broke off as the steamer's engines drummed into life. "We're moving. At last."
"Thank God for that. You should have warned me, Balthus."
Dr. Sanders took his cigarette case from his pocket, but the priest had already palmed a fresh cigarette into his cupped hand with the deftness of a conjurer. Balthus pointed with it to the jetty, where a substantial reception committee of gendarmerie and customs officials was waiting for the steamer. "Now, what nonsense is this?"
Dr. Sanders watched the shore. Whatever Balthus's private difficulties, the priest's lack of charity irritated him. Half to himself, Sanders said dryly: "Perhaps there's a question of credentials."
"Not mine, Doctor." Father Balthus turned a sharp downward glance upon Sanders. "And I'm certain your own are in order."
The other passengers were leaving the rail and going below to collect their baggage. With a smile at Balthus, Dr. Sanders excused himself and began to make his way down to his cabin. Dismissing the priest from his mind- within half an hour they would have disappeared their separate ways into the forest and whatever awaited them there-Sanders felt in his pocket for his passport, reminding himself not to leave it in his cabin. The desire to travel incognito, with all its advantages, might well reveal itself in some unexpected way.
As Dr. Sanders reached the companionway behind the funnelhouse, he could see down into the afterdeck, where the steerage passengers were pulling together their bundles and cheap suitcases. In the center of the deck, partly swathed in a canvas awning, was a large red-and-yellow-hulled speedboat, part of the cargo consignment for Port Matarre.
Taking his ease on the wide bench seat behind the steering helm, one arm resting on the raked glass and chromium windshield, was a small, slimly built man of about forty, wearing a white tropical suit that emphasized the rim of dark beard which framed his face. His black hair was brushed down over his bony forehead, and with his small eyes gave him a taut and watchful appearance. This man, Ventress-his name was about all Dr. Sanders had managed to learn about him-was the doctor's cabinmate. During the journey from Libreville he had roamed about the steamer like an impatient tiger, arguing with the steerage passengers and crew, his moods switching from a kind of ironic humor to sullen disinterest, when he would sit alone in the cabin, gazing out through the porthole at the small disc of empty sky.
Dr. Sanders had made one or two attempts to talk to him, but most of the time Ventress ignored him, keeping to himself whatever reasons he had for coming to Port Matarre. However, the doctor was well inured by now to being avoided by those around him. Shortly before they embarked, a slight contretemps, more embarrassing to his fellow passengers than to himself, had arisen over the choice of a cabinmate for Dr. Sanders. His fame having preceded him (what was fame to the world at large still remained notoriety on the personal level, Sanders reflected, and no doubt the reverse was true), no one could be found to share a cabin with the assistant director of the Fort Isabelle leper hospital.
At this point Ventress had stepped forward. Knocking on Dr. Sanders's door, suitcase in hand, he had nodded at the doctor and asked simply:
BOOK: The Crystal World
4.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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