Book review

Philip Pullman fans have no choice but to read his new novel (and new readers can start here)

The comforting, familiar world of ‘His Dark Materials’ is back, with fresh additions.

In 1995, in a universe uncannily similar to ours, Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, hid in a closet in Jordan College. From this hiding place, they watched as one man attempted to poison another. Lyra and Pan intervened, setting in motion a chain of events that form the dramatic arc of Phillip Pullman’s award-winning fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials.

Pullman returns to this playground in his latest series, The Book of Dust. The first, La Belle Sauvage, serves as a prequel to HDM, telling the story of how Lyra and Pan arrived at Jordan College. Returning readers might be thrown off at first – the Lyra we meet in these pages is a gurgling baby, who soils her nappies and has to be carried everywhere. As a result, the narrative cannot follow her perspective, interesting as that might be.

Instead, Pullman’s primary set of eyes is a new character, Malcolm Polstead. An innkeeper’s son with a powerful curiosity for the world around him, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, stumble into a dark underworld of secrets and prophecy when they witness a strange encounter, while they canoe down the canals of seemingly idyllic Oxford.

The set up is similar to that of Northern Lights: a child and his daemon see something, or hear something they should not have, and get caught up, of their own volition, in a series of strange, increasingly life threatening events. There is talk of Dust, that mysterious thing that hangs over and forms the eponymous “matter” of Dark Materials. There are appearances from old, familiar characters, like Lord Asriel and the alluring Mrs Coulter, as well as an action-packed engagement with the gyptian, Fader Coram. And of course, there are compelling new figures as well, including a taciturn teenage girl named Alice, and a sinister, disturbing villain, Gerard Bonneville.

British myth-making

Pullman does a good job of laying the basis for the conflict that forms the meat of Dark Materials. In the first trilogy, worlds are torn apart by a war between agents of the Magisterium, a censoring, Church-like authority, and those who seek a world more receptive to knowledge, and the concept of free will. Perhaps confusingly, prophecy is still integral to this conflict, with Lyra forming its focus. This half-known, barely understood prophecy is what makes her a target in La Belle, and motivates the chase that forms the meat of the book.

When torrential rains pound Britain, Malcolm, Alice and their daemons must navigate the rising waters in Malcolm’s bravely named canoe (which gives the book its title), and flee those who pursue them. Along the way, they stumble into a number of adventures and encounters, some more hair-raising than others.

Pullman peppers his book with shadows of works besides his own. The narrative is capped off with a quotation from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which seems justified by the quest narrative and certain figures who make brief appearances in the text. There are also shades of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant; the world is made unfamiliar by a flood, the travellers moving through it in search of a safe haven, not entirely sure of the import of the secret, or treasure, they carry. There is a definite note of national myth-making, an effort to fit into a recognisably “British” fantasy ethos that was absent in the first series. Whether this will continue into the second and third books remains to be seen.

“Malcolm would have put up with a good deal rather than upset Sister Fenella, whom he loved with a deep and uncomplicated devotion. 

‘Now, what were you going to tell me?’ she said as Malcolm settled on the old stool beside her. 

‘You know who we had in the Trout last night? There was three gentlemen taking their dinner, and one of them was Lord Nugent, the Lord Chancellor of England. Ex-Lord Chancellor. And that’s not all. They were looking across here to the priory and they were ever so curious. They asked all kinds of questions – what sort of nuns you were, whether you had any guests here, what kind of people they were – and finally they asked if you’d ever had a baby staying –’ 

‘An infant,’ put in Asta. 

‘Yeah, an infant. Have you ever had an infant staying here?’ 

Sister Fenella stopped scraping. ‘The Lord Chancellor of England?’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’ 

‘Dad was, because he saw his picture in the paper and recognised him. They wanted to eat by theirselves in the Terrace Room.’ 

‘The Lord Chancellor himself ?’ 

‘Ex-Lord Chancellor. Sister Fenella, what does the Lord Chancellor do?’

‘Oh, he’s very high up, very important. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had something to do with the law. Or the government. Was he very grand and proud?’ 

‘No. He was a gentleman all right, it was easy to tell that, but he was nice and friendly.’ 

‘And he wanted to know …’ 

‘If you’d ever had an infant staying at the priory. I spect he meant staying here to be looked after.’ 

‘And what did you tell him, Malcolm?’ 

‘I said I didn’t think so. Have you, ever?’ 

‘Not in my time. Goodness me! I wonder if I ought to tell Sister Benedicta?’

Known world, new things

Is the book any good? The short answer: yes. There is something comforting about returning to a world we know already, and finding new facets to it. La Belle paints a vivid picture of an Oxford whose tranquil surface hides undercurrents of danger and intrigue, where placid-seeming scholars can harbour deadly secrets, and even acorns must be investigated closely.

Malcolm is a wonderful, warm addition to this universe, a beautifully portrayed boy whose generosity of spirit and ‘romantic’ nature nicely prefigure Lyra’s own, while being distinctive enough to set him apart from the fiery heroine she becomes. Bonneville is, honestly, a darker villain than any we’ve seen in Pullman’s fantasy work, shadowed by hinted-at allegations of sexual assault and abuse. His interactions with Alice are perhaps the most terrifying parts of the book, pushing it to territories that might be considered too dark for preteen readers.

Still, considering that The Hunger Games is preteen literature, perhaps La Belle is not all that savage after all.

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One, Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books in association with Penguin.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.