Mathew Francis's  'Mandeville'


This book attracted me first because for most of my working life I've been thinking about how one culture looks at another, and one way and another, the reader of African literature is never very far away from Mandeville and his peers,  and the mythology they use, from Othello's men with heads bellow their shoulders to the wonderful poetry that somehow comes out of the mouth of second language speaker Caliban, from the cultural stereotypes of Franz Fanon and Aimee Cesaire to the orientalism of Edward Said.   


Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to western snobbery born of ignorance about 'primitive' societies and their strange habits.  And he saw this prejudice in both Conrad's Heart of Darkness, too, a contested viewpoint, and in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, much less comestible but interestingly and generously nuanced by Achebe's contemporary countryman, Michael Echeruo who thought it 'understandable' that a European would see Mister Johnson's culture (Hausaland, in Northern Nigeria) with European preconceptions.

Much of my own thinking in and out of verse has been about this 'two cultures' situation, getting into, understanding,  a different people's world, in my case, the world of Northern Nigeria.    The first thing you find out, of course, as that though you well may see a different culture from a strange riddle-like angle,  your own culture is not nearly to clear to you as you had assumed, and is in the end very much an array of assumptions rather like a psychoanalyst's unconscious, and that too has to be voyaged towards and discovered.   And of course it's a truism that what you see in another's culture is a kind of discovery of your own.  We are 'Martians' in our own back yard as well as in someone else's.

Craig Raine's Martian poems come out of the Russian formalist dictum that poetry, as a genre, is a 'making strange' of what seemed straightforward before, a view of course mooted in The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads where Wordsworth and Coleridge see the problem from both the view points I've been talking about.  The Preface see Wordsworth's work as the use imagination to make the familiar strange, the light on earth and short, as clear and strange as it was when first seen as a child;  and it sees Coleridge as the user of imagination to conjurer up strange places against which we can match and 'see' our own quotidian lives.  


In Francis's book (and these are first reactions.  I need to read it again) there's a cunning combination of these viewpoints.  The poet puts himself into the persona of Mandeville, and as with many poets who shift the ground in this way - into dreams, visions, historical settings -  he is able  to make us  see not only through Mandeville's eyes, but also to see Mandeville through our own 'reading' eyes.

Mandeville is in some ways the typical Westerner abroad.  What funny habits these natives have!    And the double vision we have - Mandeville's and our own reading of Mandeville/Francis -   enables us to see the sorts of things he claimed to have seen in that 'world', but also 'know' that he couldn't have (There just aren't ants the size of dogs) and yet despite the ignorance (There is no racial prejudice shown) enjoy the wonderful inventiveness of the man. And then we think, well maybe they weren't quite ants, but that's the nearest concept he had.  Maybe there were some sort of giant tortoise or crab.   And his gravelly sea, could it be some movement in a desert where the movement of the dunes is like that of waves?   And his rivers of jewels, well could they just be glaciers perhaps?    No doubt, I'm wrong in these speculations, but it's that area of experience, where there are things that to the gazer have not been defined or explained before, that Francis makes Mandeville throw up for us.

And then we think, well, what is 'behind' these inventions? Or misrecognitions?   Of his?   Of ours?      What makes him so 'lust' after wonders?    And here you can't help comparing his work to War of the  Worlds in which science fiction is confused with science fact,  and confused because of the fears it triggers.   And then, is Francis, through Mandeville, begging for a more imaginative and plural view of all experience?   A more hypothesising attitude to experience which comes to us when there's some breakthrough in physics or astronomy and we learn that such creatures may indeed be possible, if not in the globe Mandeville limits himself to, then orbiting one of the stars. 


And Mandeville takes us back to a more spiritual time, when men thought about their souls and their origins and destinies more than the media would have us believe people do now.  Because Mandeville's earth is also the 'round' of Prospero's human life, the circle of knowledge which always one way or another (including in the prejudiced) comes back to ourselves and our imagining.   And this journey out is of course the journey in and the journey back,  the Ancient Mariner's lesson,  the vision of the Dark Tower, the emotional surrealism of the trenches.  


Mandeville uses the idea of circumnavigation not just in an SF, though that's fantastic (sic) enough.   But also in this philosophical way, recalling the string quartet circularity of Eliot's Four Quartets where the aim of the journey is


to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

if we can, that is.  A tragedy for many of Mandeville/Francis’s crew is that they fail to recognise their ‘home countree’ and set sail again to go on looking for it, doomed to repeat their history, perhaps.  Yes, familiar indeed.

 The first canto of Francis’s Mandeville focuses first on the world as such.

For you must know that the world is round

this is set within a Christian renaissance world picture.  Jerusalem is at the centre of everything, and where we start from is pretty grotty.

‘And our islands on the world’s edge are mere gritty dots

in that circling ocean, our shores crumbling into it,

the hills blurry with rain, the shires foundering in mud.’

Hence the quest.   But the quest involves the hardship of sea life.  Immediately he is confronted with the unfamiliar, at first the apocryphal barnacle geese, which hatch out of barnacles, learn to fly and so exchange the sea for the sky.  Their uprooting he compares to his own.

‘And if like them you would uproot yourself you must spread

your sails to the twelve winds and cross the Great Sea Ocean

which is also called Death, for it flows round everything,

and immediately we see that this is also a sort of ‘sea journey’ in the Gilgamesh mode,  the ship a kind of temporary coffin from which the voyager will, hopefully, emerge reborn, or at least – like the Ancient Marion –  wiser.

‘and know the place for the first time’

Francis’s narrator says

“And you will lie in the wooden dark waiting to breathe

the air your companions have used for their snores and farts

while the night is lifted and dropped with you inside it.’


Because the great ocean he goes upon is also death, and the 'wooden dark' reminiscent of the coffin, and a number of the incidents show him undergoing what  turns out to be a kind of moral test, like a Spenserian knight in the endless forest.


The circularity is underlined at the end of the poem, when Mandeville reviews his life and travels, and then the truth of his reports, reports which historians and others have found so unlikely as to have wondered if the man himself ever really existed.


‘I, Sir John Mandeville, have travelled to here and here,

seen this wonder and that, and returned home.  Believe me.

What I had said is true, or as good as, or was once.’


Truth, then, is relative to something else, to the person experiencing it, and to the reader of the poem’s imaginative ‘take’ on it.   So Francis raises the question as to what is really so (and that 'it ain't necessarily')in an age where there is conflict in people’s minds about the nature of their world - about warming, about how global economics works -  partly indeed of its physical nature,  but more obviously the world of values which for Mandeville were secure at the centre of the globe where Jerusalem is assumed to stand.  Nothing so central or certain for us, except perhaps the very shifting sands of consumerist 'progress'.  


He like the poet goes ‘round it and about’, and much of our own uncertainty is like that,  a kind of poetry which - like the voices of the sirens -  we do not hear and, like Mandeville’s shipmates, may  go on voyaging in search of even when we have come back to it. 


He ends the poem.


‘So the man and his friends sailed back where they had come from.

Yet I believe they might have gone a few miles further

and arrived home.  For you must know that the world is round.’


        I’m not sure what I finally think Francis is ‘saying’.              

 Perhaps this is a view of the individual life, that 'little round      that Prospero talks about,  or

 perhaps he’s thinking more widely about the mess we’re voyaging into as a culture, global indeed looking at apparent fantasies - the melting of the poles,  malaria in England -  in what looks like a strange other world, but one to which we must return as to reality.  The whole imagery of the globe, the circular path typical of an art form, as against the straight path which in our time we imagine time has, and the line of line which most of us to not think of as ‘coming back’ in a different form, in a different world, sadder and wiser men and women.