Nostalgia: The terrifying secret of the cruelty of children

April 30, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The other day, I was confronted by a monster: myself, age 10. The occasion was reading a book I had read many times before. Its revelation tossed me somewhere between terror and ecstasy. Lacking for the moment a more enticing argument, I will insist that's what serious reading and writing are for.

The book is "A High Wind in Jamaica," by Richard Hughes. (Available in at least three editions in U.S. book shops.) I read it first when I was 10 years old, or maybe just before I turned 10. I vividly remember rereading it every summer practically forever, which probably means three or four years. It was one of my favorite books. Almost certainly I have read it more times than any other.

Of course, I missed the meaning of the whole thing.

As a child, I was certain I did understand, and the book was delightfully wonderful. Today, I believe I understand it, and it is wonderful and terrifying.

Indisputable details: The book is a story of pirates, practicing a trade that was economically obsolete in the mid-1800s, who by no intent of their own have on their hands seven children, aged about 4 to 13, who were bound from Jamaica for England.

Over a period of several weeks on board the pirate schooner (time is quite indefinite), a lot happens. By the book's end, one boy is dead, by his own fool fault. The reader is left with a 10-year-old girl, typical among the other children, who has murdered a bound-up, entirely decent man. Beyond that her perjury has allowed others whom she had much loved to be hanged.

The book was first published in 1929 under the title "The Innocent Voyage," when Hughes was 29 years old and a very minor playwright. Within months, he was world-famous. The book, under its present, richer, presumably more salable title, was an established classic. He died in 1976 in his mid-70s. Meanwhile, he wrote other books, though few and none with the impact of "A High Wind in Jamaica." A recent biography (by Richard Perceval Graves, published in Britain by Andre Deutsch, obtainable here by special order), makes him out a blocked, often miserable man.

So what's all the fuss?

From childhood, I remember the utter naturalness of the book and everything in it. The kids were not me. I did not grow up in Jamaica and was never captive on a pirate ship, though I had been on some large sailboats. It all had happened something like 100 years back. But reading the book without a moment's disbelief I was there. I was one of them.

The compelling power of the book then was this: The way the children in it acted, responded and perceived, the experiences they had, the associations they made, were all entirely right and proper, natural, and good fun. A rollicking adventure tale. There's a lot of amusing stuff, a drunken monkey, a pet pig. As a child, those passages made me laugh enough that my stomach hurt.

Now, reading the same book, I found my abdomen aching not from laughter but from tension built on the central cruelty of it all. It's a book in which the most inhuman of human acts - murder, brutal lying, gross disloyalty, acts of total selfishness, self-indulgence and hypocrisy - are cleanly, unjudgmentally related, and terrifying.

Most terrifying of all, of course, is the totally logical, sensible naturalness of these cruelties.

So today when I think of the person who read this book for the purest joy of it at 10, 12 or 14, I find a monster. He -- it -- was, of course, me.

Since his book is serious literature, not plodding psychology, Hughes does not blunder into trying to explain the inexplicable. But respecting several levels of irony and intentionally muddling playfulness, here's the most intimate flirtation with an explanation he allows his narrative voice:

"Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child at least in a partial degree - and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee."

If you suffer the slightest confusion when faced with the most recent news of a 12-year-old shooting dead an 8-year-old or vice versa, this book's for you. So natural are such acts, that, the Second Amendment notwithstanding, they give brisk persuasiveness to the thought that it is a good idea to keep loaded weapons from ready access by children.

But there is a lot more to the book, and its implication.

Excepting acts of faith, there is no absolute truth but this one: The pursuit of truth is humankind's only truly serious endeavor. That chase is art's main job.

Of course one of the great elusive truths chased by serious people is the anomaly of childhood and the perversity of innocence. When a child is sentimentalized as innocent of guile or complex intent, the same child, at least in the abstract, must be looked at as equally innocent of humane or ethical values.

That reaffirms the indomitable complexity, the entire singularity, of every man, woman and child, a revelation that is always frightening - and finally more beautiful than any other. Exploring, celebrating that is what writing is for.

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