Melanie Little’s The Apprentice’s Masterpiece

Posted: November 14, 2008 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Melanie Little, race, verse

Little, Melanie. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece.  Toronto:  Annick, 2008

Medieval Spain, fifteenth century.  There are two focalizing characters: Ramon, the son of a scribe, a Jew whose family has converted to Christianity but nevertheless experiences an increasing intolerance of “conversos”–those not of longstanding Christian blood; and Amir, a Muslim slave who comes to work for Ramon’s father.  The book presents, first Ramon’s story, then, after a brief repetition of the last events of Ramon’s story from Amir’s point of view, the continuation of Amir’s life separated from Ramon, and then, thirdly Ramon again as he re-meets Amir in different circumstances.  The narratives don’t alternate throughout, in other words, and tend to tell just one side of the story at any given time, so that readers are left without knowledge of what’s going on as the other central character understands it (until much later we learn how Amir understood events he experienced with Ramon in his own later narrative).

Furthermore, the book is set up as a series of poems, each a page or two, and separate enough from each other so that each has its own name.  Each describes a character’s thoughts in one specific moment (and in the present tense), and there is little sense of connection between the moments–indeed, a lot of what happened is left unreported, so it comes as a surprise, for instance, when Amir’s section comes along, to learn that he and Ramon had developed something of a friendly relationship.  Ramon himself hasn’t really thought about that, though, at least not in the moments recorded here; in them, Ramon is almost exclusively a nuisance to Ramon.  And Ramon has other things on his mind more pressing to him, it seems, like a girl he believes he’s in love with–but it’s something of a cheat for the author to leave the other moments unreported so that what didn’t matter to Ramon himself can then become more important to Amir as reported later in Amir’s section and then very important to Ramon himself, as reported in the last section when he tries to save the life of the boy he once, I imagined, just disliked.

It’s a somewhat manipulative trick not to be told of things happening that will turn out to be important later–a trick dependent on the fact that the book presents itself as poetry, so that any narrative flow is implied rather than actually present in the isolated bits of narrative each poem presents, and it’s up to readers to figure out how these moments connect to each other in terms of a plot or connected sequence of events.  Readers get to play connect the dots, sort of, and here, the specific dots simply leave out  other moments that turn out to be important in the characters’ later relationship retrospectively.  This is maybe a way of taking the isolation and then connection inherent in an alternating narrative structure to an extreme: offering deceptively isolated moments only in order to unveil the surprising connections between them later on.  (After having thought about Dr. Atomic, I might call this isolating aspect of alternating narratives, leading to often explosively climactic connection, an atomic bomb effect.)

The book is, of course, about characters somehow isolated (here by racial and religious prejudice, primarily) becoming connected, and about apparently different people discovering their hidden sameness.  In a way, that’s more or less what all stories with alternating narratives are about, or at least, it’s one of the most obvious ways a novelist can make use of this kind of structure, so that either this form inherently suggests that kind of ideological position or else the widespread power of that ideology (especially in terms of how adults want young people to understand the world) leads many writers to the alternating narrative as a good way to express it.  Structure creates substance, or substance invites structure?  I don’t know which, or maybe both.

Here, the issues are both religious and familial.  It’s Jews vs. Christians vs. Muslims, and the sanctity of the individual mind and individual family against all three.  Ramon can’t understand why his father seems more interested in Amir than in himself (although it becomes clear that, despite family blood, Amir has been an equally  obvious successor of Ramon’s father and sharer of his values as is Ramon himself–and it’s Ramon’s own understanding of that and recommitment to those values he hadn’t earlier been able to share that brings him together with Amir   He first, though, has to learn what was hidden from him (and us)–that his father had come to love Amir enough to have actually freed him from slavery, and asked him to call him Pappa, etc.–but that rather than all this being a rejection of Ramon, the father had kept Ramon out of knowing it for fear of its danger to him.  So political circumstances have isolated one boy from the other even while love and empathy were making the members of the same family, and doing it while putting them in enough contact to experience a mutual empathy they can acknowledge and act on only much later.

So external circumstances–politics, religion–separate those who are not truly different.  True community is with those who share our commitments and ideals, not necessarily, as the inquisition would have it, with those who share our blood or our faith.  There’s an implication that religion and politics are the enemy here–what divides and corrupts.  (It’s also interesting that, despite one being a Christian Jew and the other a Muslim, these boys echo many alternating narrative characters by being, in fact, on the same side against a common enemy, in this case the Inquisition.  Alternating narratives rarely pit good guys against bad guys, and tend instead to prefer to show two different [but in the end not-so-different] responses to the evil left unfocalized.)

To begin with, Ramon, as an embattled converso, is set up as a sympathetic sufferer of intolerance and injustice.  He  then reveals his own intolerance for the outsider Amir, and so must learn to be more genuinely tolerant by understanding his own tendency to self-aggrandizement and prejudice, and to act against it.  At first, he sees himself as confused, half-Christian, half-Jew, (and indeed, without really experiencing or expressing any actual faith in anything), while Amir knows who he is–and claims (to himself? it’s unclear who the audience for these monologues is) to be a devout Muslim (even though his texts really give little evidence of that in the way of emotional involvement, etc.; he’s a religious person who doesn’t sound the least bit religious, and who says he’s praying but who never actually prays).

Ramon must be punished, then–for intolerance, though, not for lack of faith: the book seems generally unhappy about faith.  So he falls in love with the wrong girl, and somehow ends up ordering the slave Amir around and into danger and backing himself into the corner of having to become a scribe for the Inquisition. Later, knowing how that led to Amir’s being attacked in the street and then having to flee (and eventually, becoming a slave yet once more) Ramon feels a guilt he must then expunge.  At the end, after Ramon desperately tries to save Amir’s life, it’s Amir who helps save Ramon’s life.  Empathy triumphs over religion.

About difference, the text offers a quote from the poet Hafiz:

How can two different eyes behold you as you are?
Each will see according to what it knows.

That’s a basic principle of the world of alternating narratives.  But often, as again here, the difference is mostly theoretical.  Amir and Ramon don’t really sound different from each other in their different narratives–it’s like the same voice describing different circumstances in the same way.  And neither sounds terribly committed to whatever religious values they’re supposed to espouse.  They seem like twenty-first century people claiming a faith they don’t actually seem to feel or be immersed in.  Religion is referred to, then, but not actually present except as that which divides soul-mates (recognizable to readers as self-centring modern individuals like ourselves) from each other.  And in the end, individual character triumphs over faith and race claims, and two boys who think and sound almost exactly alike acknowledge their allegiance.

Yet once more, also, I have to complain about the so-called poetry that’s so fashionable in novels for young people these days (see also: The Braid and Beating Heart.  These pieces in The Master’s Apprentice just read like personal musings, with little sense of concentration of emotion or of language that particularly expressive–and the line-breaks seem to be there just to make them look like poems, for they don’t add anything to the ideational or emotional structure or rhythm of the pieces.  So the pieces are more like diary entries than what I would be willing to give the name poetry to.  Just being an old-fashioned snob, I guess.  But I do think that a story told in something like real poetry might well have the intensity to survive the distancing and isolation of all these separate little sections, and that doesn’t happen here because the language simply isn’t interesting enough to be worth paying attention to for more than the story it’s telling–the events.

Also, these present tense narratives sound very narrative-like–more like a statement of how someone feels or what he remembers as spoken to an audience than like interior monologue, which is surely less narratively organized, and more dramatically conflicted?  So really, they are more narrative than poetry.  (And it’s weird that these fifteenth century Spanish boy says things like “Here’s what I don’t get” or that something “feels gutsy”–very recent idioms, meant, I suspect, to make the text seem lively but that somehow just stick out like unruly cowlicks and draw attention to themselves, and that end up confirming the unacknowledged similarity of these two theoretically different characters who both share a 21st century mind).

Boy, am I sounding like a grumpy old poop.  But I’m suspecting that the only reason there are so many book set up this way these days, as supposed free verse that’s free of verse, is because, unlike what used to be called poetry, this widely spaced prose is easy to read quickly, and you can say you’ve read a whole fat novel that, laid out in the more traditional way, would be about half the apparent length.   Not verse for language lovers, then, but easy-to-read prose for language haters.  Feh.

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