NATIVES OF MY PERSON extract from new novel

“Fun,” said Pierre. “Just eat it up, eat the lot up.”

“Eat what?” Ivan asked.

“The lot,” said Pierre, “the whole lot.”

“With a different birth I would have gone for the Church,” said Ivan.

Pierre collapsed with laughter. Chastity and prayer had the flavour of a good joke: the ridiculous given dignity by a certain sweetness of fantasy. Ivan paid no attention to this show of irreverence. He waited for Pierre to give his meaning a proper attention.
“It is the knowledge I’d be after,” he said. “There is knowledge in the Church, knowledge abundant.”

Pierre tried to shift his ground. The Church as a source of knowledge made some sense. He was thinking that knowledge was necessary even in matters which had to do with fun. He wanted to give way to this extraordinary desire of Ivan, but the element of fantasy defeated itself when he recalled the austerity and solitude which the Church demanded. “You want to be a sort of corpse,” he said, and considered Ivan with an attentive glance.

“To be let into the mysteries,” said Ivan, focusing his gaze on the empty sky. “To wrestle like a fighting man with finding the truth. It must be a special kind of grandness to raise you up. Just to know, to walk in a great knowledge.”

“They are up to no good, those damned priests,” Pierre said. He had reverted to form, rumbustious, blunt, with an instinct for harmless mischief. “I could tell you many a story that would make the devil clap for joy. He’d eat it up, the joy it would give.”

“The priest is only a man,” Ivan said, defending his meaning of the Church. “But the knowledge he can gain belonging to the Church.”

“They are not supposed to read certain books,” said Pierre, “and the best ones, too.”

“You don’t need many,” said Ivan. “There is a kind of knowledge which don’t need many words. Just few and deep.”

“The sun is getting at you again,” Pierre said. “You’ll be a real corpse before long.”

The prospect of dying frightened Ivan. He was suddenly grave and cautious, dubious of the consolations he had attributed to the Church. Pierre relished his victory. He did a brisk exercise with his arms, bending the elbows painfully from the waist, then plunging his hands madly out and parallel to the deck. He made it look like the movement of eyelids, swift, natural, within and outside ordinary notice.

Down and away this exercise carried his limbs which Ivan was forced to admire: an older man’s nostalgia for original powers he boasted of knowing.

“Eat it up,” said Pierre, talking to his body. “Eat the lot up.”

The Commandant arrived silently behind them. Ivan saw him first and was perplexed by the need to be doing something. He remembered Baptiste’s warning and felt a sudden weight of guilt deaden his movements: a feel of iron hanging from his body. The next, had no precedent on this voyage.

“Excellent, Ivan.” the Commandant shouted, drill him proper. Fitness is what I say. You read my order correct.”

Ivan couldn’t read, but he seized his cue and bellowed instructions at Pierre. Incomprehensible as dogs, Ivan’s voice dictated a series of orders to Pierre’s hands. The Commandant glanced approvingly at them for the last time and strode away. Pierre’s body had become a machine, perfect in its timing, as it carried out the orders which Ivan’s voice was shouting. Body and voice had assumed an independence of function. They did not belong, but were simply there, movement and sound manipulated by a process that was beyond the understanding of either man. Pierre and Ivan spectators, stupefied witnesses of a performance which had now attracted the attention of the crew. The order of firmness had found its medium in Ivan’s voice. And the men watched, at first overcome with admiration and alarm, until this sudden discovery of perfection seduced them slowly, then madly into a frenzy of gymnastics. Here was an example of an event creating its own agent of authority. Ivan was transformed. The Commandant had returned to the scene, stunned with the satisfaction which this spectacle offered him. And the madness held full sway over the destiny of the ship charging forward in the area of white fire which ringed it. This madness lasted until Ivan hearing that chisel at the back of his skull, heard the warning of the sun, and shouted Rest. It was a fearful sound which halted the movement of arms and returned the men to an ordinary awareness of who they were and what they were doing.