2015, pp 278, Rs 299
David Park is no newcomer to the world of novelists and has gathered a few awards as well since he started publishing a quarter century ago. A writer from Northern Ireland, he published Stone Kingdoms first in 1996. That was before the Belfast Agreement that ended the ethno-nationalist conflict in that region. Here in the novel, there is a sense of darkness almost everywhere. We open to the scene of Naomi, horribly burnt, with eyes in bandage being treated in a refugee hospital in Africa. So what happened?
From the next chapter on, the growing-up of Naomi bisects the African present where Nadra keeps her company. It is a cheerless tale, often striking out thought-provoking flashes.
“…the voice I hear in the background. It is an old man reciting the Koran.
‘Do you believe in God, Nadra?’
She laughs at first, and clucks as if she is listening to a child who has said something funny. ‘Allah Akbar, God is great, Naomi’.
‘You still believe in Allah after all that we have seen?’
‘We have seen what men have done, not Allah’.”
Death is a constant presence and these deaths have no dignity about them. The “exhausted acceptance of their fate” by the victims of terror is unbearable. Even the games of children are made up of spears and “kill the pig” war cries. People all over the globe have tasted blood and have turned into man-eaters. Even Ireland is the same as Africa. A hundred years after Parnell, the land still cries out for spilt blood. Park gives no respite since humanity’s heart has indeed grown stony. Moving from Ireland to Africa, Naomi has literally fallen from the frying pan into the fire.
“And so in Bakalla my job was to set up a school, utilising whatever resources were available, share responsibility for the growing number of orphans in the camp and construct a register to help establish family connections and possible locations.”
An unstoppable savagery marks the movement in a place where even a refugee camp cannot guarantee a safe passage for its volunteers. A narrative that gets spattered on every page with the death and worse of women and children and assures us that “we have got everything here — malnutrition, dysentery, TB, malaria, AIDS, you name it, we’ve got it”. But I cannot stop turning the pages and also reading each page through for this is how we have transformed Mother Earth into Mother Death. Is there a beneficiary? Yes, there is one for sure.
“The people making the biggest bucks are the arms dealers. Everywhere you look, some kid with a hole in the ass of his pants is carrying a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher or some other piece of technology that costs an arm and a leg.”
Remembered Ireland now wafts like an occasional breeze, cooling the heroine’s existence in what is almost a boiler of passions, hate and death. Park’s portrayal of the violence of inimical soldiers towards captured women moves forward inexorably till the reader is ready to shout: “I am a spy!” The pain-racked narrative is a cry from the heart of the brilliant Irish novelist not only for Ireland, but also for all the world areas under siege today.
Just when we think there cannot be anything worse, we have another kind of brutality. Ironically, when Naomi does make it to the Agency run by the West, she gets imprisoned in darkness, “the darkness that isn’t night.” The novel is left open-ended. Will Naomi get back her eyesight when the Swiss doctor comes down? Will she get back to Ireland, a sadder and wiser woman? Naomi tried to escape the conflict in Northern Ireland by moving to Africa. But she had only plunged into infinite terror and infinite despair. After the soul-searing experiences in Africa, would she ever come back?
For all its carnage-spattered telling, Stone Kingdoms invites us to read it through with single-pointed concentration. If the title is taken into account, we even manage to trace it to the Bible, to know what Daniel saw in the long corridor of time (2:34), how the Stone Kingdom alone will endure. But, which one is the Stone Kingdom? And then there are these images that indicate the heroine’s survival against all the odds that are suffocating her right now: “I try to stem the pain, imagine a pink slick of sperm trembling in the water, then sometime in the darkness a glint of coral starting silently through the currents. Swimming through the dangers, swimming until it finds the safety of the reef where it grows and renews what has been destroyed.”
A clear message of ‘wait and hope’ that endures forever.