Wednesday, May 11, 2005

‘And thou shalt build a great boat, yea...’

The story of Noah and the ark is so rich with dramatic possibility, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t already inspired a deluge of fiction. The content would put the schmaltziest Bollywood movie to shame. There’s a man who hears voices in his head, there’s an angry and vengeful God, there’s a bickering family (and no one bickers like they do in the Bible), there’s loads of sex (including between a 600-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl if you like age-difference romances), there’s a global catastrophe that outdoes all of Hollywood’s terrible disaster movies, there are thousands of shrieking, drowning people, there are pairs of grinning lions and panthers and snakes and slugs. This is blockbuster material. Titanic was a dinghy compared to this.

So why haven’t more fiction writers found inspiration in the story? One notable example was of course the brilliant first chapter of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, a very irreverent account of the catastrophe as seen through the eyes of a stowaway woodworm. Right from its opening lines ("They put the behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use them as ballast, but you can imagine the stench"), Barnes’s story never lets up once, dealing with such controversial subjects as: What kind of a man was Noah, really? (Answer: not a very nice man.) What did the family eat during their long years of confinement? (Do you really want to know?) What was one of the women up to with one of the more intelligent male chimpanzees? Were the species that made it off the ark really all there was of Creation before the Flood? Why were the poor lemmings traumatised for all time? And why did the raven get such bad press while the devious dove was destined for special status on postage stamps?

Now we have David Maine’s debut novel The Flood which, while nowhere near as good as the Barnes story, makes a brave stab at weaving new wool out of the Noah legend. Maine tells the story through the perspectives of various members of Noah’s family: the cantankerous old man himself, all bluster and hidebound beliefs; his near-anonymous, nameless wife; their sons Sem, Cham and Japheth; their wives Bera, Ilya and Mirn. The novel opens with daughters-in-law being sent off to distant lands to gather species. Sons goof off, wondering what all the fuss is about. Building the ark is difficult, especially since the people who are to be left behind don’t have much incentive to help out. As the Day of Judgement draws near, there is much debating about how the animals ought to be packed in. Tempers rise. Then the waters follow suit.

Strewn in with the funny bits are frequent speculations on the randomness of life; there is a poignant moment when Noah’s daughter-in-law Ilya watches the people drowning outside and thinks about the set of circumstances that led her to become part of this family: “Change any of those circumstances and I’m not on this boat. I’m down there in the crowd, pleading, Don’t leave me here to die.”

The Flood is rarely uninteresting, though it plods slightly in the final chapters. However, at times Maine seems undecided between writing an out-and-out entertainer and making deep observations on faith and family ties. This splits the book down the middle: on the one hand it isn’t as funny or irreverent as it could have been but on the other hand it doesn’t do much justice to the more serious topics. I thought the author copped out in the end.

Still, it’s entertaining and fast-paced, and for me personally speaking it was also the kind of book I don’t get to read much these days - the kind that comes to you unencumbered by hype and blurbs. When you’re not a full-time reviewer and have to ration your reading, it gets difficult to escape the Big Books, the “important releases”. Those usually jostle for space with my favourite writers or the older books on my reading list. So this was a good change, though I won’t be queueing up for the sequel.


  1. Rosemary Harris did a delightful trilogy for kids on Ham, Shem and Japhet and Rueben the animal trainer - The Moon in the Cloud I think it was called.

  2. Read Jeanette Winterson's Boating fof Beginners if you haven't already...

  3. Thanks for the recos. Did a quick search for them on Amazon and they sound interesting. I knew there had to be more out there on the subject!

  4. thank you. have had 'the flood' on my desk for three days now, and haven't been able to decide whether or not i ought to pick it up. i think i will. over the weekend, perhaps. and btw, how do you ever, ever, ever manage to squeeze in so much reading in one little week :)