Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Like many people my age, my first encounter with John Steinbeck was when studying Of Mice and Men during my GCSEs.  Unlike a lot of people, flogging out every detail of a novel (and then watching the video because we'd never quite finished reading the book) didn't put me off reading for life - but neither was I desperate to read any more Steinbeck.

So, when my book group chose The Pearl (1947) for this month's read, I was happy to give Steinbeck another go.  I hadn't disliked Of Mice and Men, but I'm yet to click with any of the Great American Novels (on the list which left me cold at best: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick - although I did love To Kill A Mockingbird).  Well, there could scarcely be more different novels than Of Mice and Men and The Pearl - it's difficult to believe they're by the same author.  And whatever my feelings about the former work - The Pearl is captivatingly brilliant.

At only ninety pages long, The Pearl is barely a novella - the blurb of my copy labels it a short story, but I think it is most fitting to call it a fable.  That is certainly reflective of its tone and atmosphere.  It tells of Kino, his wife Juana, and their baby Coyotito.  They are Mexican pearlers, living in La Paz in extreme poverty - but a close, kind community.  That is, those of their race (which I think is Mexican-Indian) care for one another - the rich townsfolk are selfish colonisers who refer to Kino and his people as 'animals'.

What I loved most about the book was its style and tone, which felt authentically as though it were an inherited folk-tale, told through the generations.  I daresay there's all sorts that could be said about an outsider imposing a fable on this community, ya-dah-ya-dah, but that's not really the point - Steinbeck has crafted something which never feels forced or voyeuristic, but as though it were part of the lifeblood of people like Kino.  Folk-tales tend to present the world in an unexpected way - in The Pearl, the Mexican-Indians experience events through melodies.  Not simply singing about them, but sensing them - Kino can hear the Song of Evil approaching; he can hear the Song of Family.  He can hear many interweaving melodies, and trusts them.
Now, Kino's people had sung of everything that happened or existed.  They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people - every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten.  And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the grey-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone.  But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Peal That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl.
It will come as no surprise that Kino finds a pearl - and it is enormous.  It is, he believes, The Pearl of the World.  What follows is akin to a parable - unsurprisingly the arrival of wealth does not bring happiness; rather, it brings complications and anguish.

I shan't give you all the details.  Although they are somewhat predictable, as with all stories (and especially folk-tales) the importance lies in the way in which they are told.  I was very impressed by Steinbeck's technique in mounting tension (a trait he also uses, of course, in Of Mice and Men) - he manages to make a very simple tale extremely gripping.  If I knew how he did, I'd be a great writer myself.

The Pearl isn't simply a morality tale.  That wealth doesn't equate happiness is both true and a truism.  Steinbeck's use of a straightforward tale is much more sophisticated - an incredibly engaging, beautiful narrative.  It isn't the sort of book I could love in a fond, intimate manner - in feeling like a folk-tale passed down through generations, it keeps the reader at a distance - but this story of Kino and his family is still captivating, and a masterpiece of simplicity and authorial economy.

Things to get Stuck into:

The Blue Fox by Sjon - this sparse Icelandic tale kept coming to my mind whilst I was reading - perhaps because Sjon, like Steinbeck, envelops the reader entirely in the atmosphere of his tale.

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono - for another well-told fable, with beautiful woodcut illustrations, you could do no better.


  1. Unlike a lot of people, flogging out every detail of a novel (and then watching the video because we'd never quite finished reading the book) didn't put me off reading for life - but neither was I desperate to read any more Steinbeck.

    10th grade English class at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Florida. The teacher put on the version of "Of Mice and Men" with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and Malkovich became one of my favorite actors during the scene where he looms menacingly over Casey Siemaszko (Curley) while breaking his hand. I was deeply impressed by that kind of power in acting.

  2. Well I've never seen the movie. But I did flog through every detail of Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row too in high school, and loved every minute of it. Still haven't read The Pearl but I would never say no to more Steinbeck. Also loved Travels with Charley (and no one forced me to flog through that one!). Thanks for the review; you remind me to seek out Steinbeck.

  3. My slim childhood copy of the Red Pony, a book that never really appealed to me, had an enchanting short story tucked behind it - "Junius Maltby".

  4. Augh! This brings to mind painful memories of eighth grade...I was young, not very well-read. Our teacher handed us this strange little novel, which I would soon label as abominable, among other adjectives. I hated it! I swore never even to think of it again! But your review makes me think it possible that my thirteen-year-old self could have been wrong about a book? (Answer: Yes.)

  5. This is a beautiful insightful review Simon - thank you.

    I think you would LOVE Cannery Row and it's sequel Sweet Thursday and prequel Tortilla Flat. Cannery Row is one of my favourite novels - it is far less tragic than The Pearl but still breaks the heart.

  6. Bizarrely this was my first encounter with Steinbeck at school aged 12. Oh how I hated reading round the class - I used to read ahead and then be bored for the rest of the term

  7. This was my first encounter with Steinbeck as well, aged 11 or 12. I thought it was a good book but didn't enjoy it at all, which has always put me off trying any more Steinbeck. Maybe I would like Of Mice and Men better, since you hated that and liked The Pearl!

  8. I can remember reading this at school and really enjoying it. I should hunt out a copy ...

  9. Ooh, timely review, Simon, I was looking for another Steinbeck to read. I will look for The Pearl I would highly recommend Cannery Row if you'd like to read another Steinbeck novella.

  10. I read of mice and men at school I reviewed this earlier this year ,it is a perfect little folk tale I thought ,all the best stu


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