Like many people my age, my first encounter with John Steinbeck was when studying Of Mice and Men during my GCSEs. Unlike a lot of people, flogging out every detail of a novel (and then watching the video because we’d never quite finished reading the book) didn’t put me off reading for life – but neither was I desperate to read any more Steinbeck.
So, when my book group chose The Pearl (1947) for this month’s read, I was happy to give Steinbeck another go. I hadn’t disliked Of Mice and Men, but I’m yet to click with any of the Great American Novels (on the list which left me cold at best: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick – although I did love To Kill A Mockingbird). Well, there could scarcely be more different novels than Of Mice and Men and The Pearl – it’s difficult to believe they’re by the same author. And whatever my feelings about the former work – The Pearl is captivatingly brilliant.
At only ninety pages long, The Pearl is barely a novella – the blurb of my copy labels it a short story, but I think it is most fitting to call it a fable. That is certainly reflective of its tone and atmosphere. It tells of Kino, his wife Juana, and their baby Coyotito. They are Mexican pearlers, living in La Paz in extreme poverty – but a close, kind community. That is, those of their race (which I think is Mexican-Indian) care for one another – the rich townsfolk are selfish colonisers who refer to Kino and his people as ‘animals’.
What I loved most about the book was its style and tone, which felt authentically as though it were an inherited folk-tale, told through the generations. I daresay there’s all sorts that could be said about an outsider imposing a fable on this community, ya-dah-ya-dah, but that’s not really the point – Steinbeck has crafted something which never feels forced or voyeuristic, but as though it were part of the lifeblood of people like Kino. Folk-tales tend to present the world in an unexpected way – in The Pearl, the Mexican-Indians experience events through melodies. Not simply singing about them, but sensing them – Kino can hear the Song of Evil approaching; he can hear the Song of Family. He can hear many interweaving melodies, and trusts them.
Now, Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the grey-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Peal That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl.
It will come as no surprise that Kino finds a pearl – and it is enormous. It is, he believes, The Pearl of the World. What follows is akin to a parable – unsurprisingly the arrival of wealth does not bring happiness; rather, it brings complications and anguish.
I shan’t give you all the details. Although they are somewhat predictable, as with all stories (and especially folk-tales) the importance lies in the way in which they are told. I was very impressed by Steinbeck’s technique in mounting tension (a trait he also uses, of course, in Of Mice and Men) – he manages to make a very simple tale extremely gripping. If I knew how he did, I’d be a great writer myself.
The Pearl isn’t simply a morality tale. That wealth doesn’t equate happiness is both true and a truism. Steinbeck’s use of a straightforward tale is much more sophisticated – an incredibly engaging, beautiful narrative. It isn’t the sort of book I could love in a fond, intimate manner – in feeling like a folk-tale passed down through generations, it keeps the reader at a distance – but this story of Kino and his family is still captivating, and a masterpiece of simplicity and authorial economy.
Things to get Stuck into:
The Blue Fox by Sjon – this sparse Icelandic tale kept coming to my mind whilst I was reading – perhaps because Sjon, like Steinbeck, envelops the reader entirely in the atmosphere of his tale.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono – for another well-told fable, with beautiful woodcut illustrations, you could do no better.