Two refugees are shut in a small cage and fed through a hole in the wires: Stephanie Johnson reviews The Cage, the claustrophobic, dystopian novel by Lloyd Jones.
The back cover blurb for The Cage describes the contents as “a profound and unsettling fable”. It’s a little-known fact that very often writers themselves pen these descriptions of their books. Publishers may well make a few alterations or suggestions. If Jones gave his book this description, then we can assume that he set out from the beginning to write a fable and not a conventional or literary novel.
Is it possible for a contemporary writer to invent a fable, and for it to be received as such by readers? The pitfalls are many – a lecturing tone, banalities posing as profundities and archetypal characters that border on weary stereotype, just for starters. For the most part, Jones avoids these problems.
The story is set at a country hotel. Characters names include Uncle Warwick, Dawn, Mr Hughes, Mr Bennett and Mr Wooten. The narrator, a boy whose real name is never disclosed, is nicknamed Sport. There are sheep and mountains and inclement weather. A reader could be forgiven for believing we are in the United Kingdom, until, at some 50 pages into the narrative, school children appear singing “Pokarekare Ana”. There’s also a later reference to our “celebrated air”, and much later still, the narrator compares himself to Young Nick “clinging to the mast of the Endeavour” as he watches the strangers in the titular cage. Contemporary worldwide problems are strangely absent; there’s an historical sense to the narrative, reminiscent of novels about the World War II. In a slightly uneasy tangent, still in the narrator’s voice, there are refugees in “unseasonal coats” and carrying “battered suitcases.” Images of the Holocaust are aroused, a European mid-twentieth century vision at odds with the apparent New Zealand setting.
The strangers, an old man and a younger, are the metaphorical refugees. They arrive at the pub from far away, bedraggled and traumatised from a catastrophe they’re unable to describe. There are hints – as if they have once seen a nuclear mushroom, the men are frightened of a cloud that appears in the sky; they won’t accept clothes offered to replace their travel-worn rags. They wait patiently for the appearance of “the woman in a hat.” Only once is the hat described as a hard hat, such as might be worn by a worker in a war or earthquake zone.
Neither are the strangers able to tell the publican and his family who they are, despite speaking the same language. They are given the nicknames Doctor and Mole. At first Sport’s uncle treats them well, giving them a hotel room in the basement. The cage comes about almost by accident. In an attempt to find out who the strangers are and what has sent them into flight, Warwick gives them some wire. Out of it they form a small cage. When a bigger, life-sized one is constructed in the hotel backyard, the strangers are caught in it. Sport, as an innocent witness, sees this as an accident. Repeatedly the long-suffering strangers, half-frozen, covered in mud and excrement, ask to be freed, and Sport tells them that he doesn’t know where the key is. It’s his “honest-to-God answer,” and he’d be the “first in line to let you and Doctor free.” In the manner of innocent witnesses, Sport is frightened when he tells them this, worried that he is himself being observed and will later pay for his honesty. He knows that if he asked his uncle for the key, “he would tell me a lie which, as soon as I heard it, would bind me to it and then I would inherit the deceit.”
In order to figure out what to do with the newcomers, a board of Trustees is formed among the town’s small businessmen. They are monumentally callous and unfeeling. Sport is given the job of writing down everything the strangers do and say and reporting back to the Trustees. “They are not interested in what I feel – that is not the job of a witness. They want to know only what the strangers know.”
Most usually, the traditional fable has animals as characters. Jones teases out this idea throughout the novel, not only in the treatment of the men, caged and gawped at by locals and tourists, but also with Sport’s frequent trips to the town’s zoo: “At the zoo, everything is shitting. Birds shit from their perches. The ibex flexes its anus and expels little black balls of shit.”
Shit is a major ingredient of the novel. Descriptions of the strangers shitting in their cage – the nominated “shitting area”, how they cover it up or don’t, the Doctor’s fly-struck bottom covered in shit, the positions each takes to relieve himself, filth on their hands and clothes, the appalling, gag-inducing stink of it – must number in the tens. And if that wasn’t enough, there are the animals in the zoo, as above, and also Ryan, an incidental child character, who is “shit-smelling”. Sport, set to observe Doctor and Mole, does so from the “upstairs toilet”, and we are witness to his use of the toilet more than once.
Is this metaphorical as well, part of the fable? That the way refugees are treated is shit, that we are making a shitty mess of the world generally? Whatever, the repetition begins to pall.
The Cage may remind readers of other dystopian novels – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind, with the ill-fated father and son desperately attempting to escape certain annihilation. I’m reminded also of two of Jones’s earlier novels, Choo Woo (1998) and Master Pip (2006) Both are congruent, powerful tales of dysfunction and resistance to the abuse of power. The Cage is another exploration of those themes. The unwilling prisoners resist their incarceration, and make the best of it as far as they are able.
There is a claustrophic aspect to the novel, with the action moving away from the small town only once. This may well be intended, since no doubt it is claustrophic inside the cage, but it makes for heavy going now and then. Not only are the scatalogical aspects repeated but also the same aspects of the strangers’ suffering. Pacing is slow, deliberate, unhurried.
A certain degreee of suspension of disbelief is required to accept the world beyond the hotel and shit-covered strangers. Another reviewer asked plaintively, “Where are the police?”, a question that may have arisen from the realism of the close setting of the country town. Life goes on. Guests come and go, cars are driven, sheep are rounded up, screens are gazed at, and the services are intact. The reader must accept one bizarre anomaly – that two innocent, desperate men continue to be shut in a cage in all weathers and fed through a hole in the wires.
In an interview with Wallace Chapman on Radio New Zealand, Jones talked about the genesis of the novel being his observation of desperate Syrian refugees in Budapest. He remarked that the novel is written in “the language of testimony”. It’s simply, clearly and vividly written, just as testimony is, and also in the way of fables. Characters in fables do things without preamble, because they must. Sport observes Doctor and Mole because he has to, but he takes no action to rescue them or to redeem himself. Towards the end of the novel, Sport states, perhaps authorially, “However hard we might try, it is not possible to feel the nightmares of others.”
This is Jones’s point. We all witness the suffering of others, more now than ever in the digital age, but we can’t ever really empathise or make a true difference. To do so would mean relinquishing our own comfort and privilege. Very few people, whether they live in Budapest or a small New Zealand country town, are willing to even consider the possibility. The moral dilemma posed in The Cage will linger long in my mind.
The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $38) is available at Unity Books.