I seem to have been reading a lot of English authors lately (my triumvirate of old favourites, David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson and Ian McEwan). There is a certain degree of comfort in their narratives, as an Australian with Anglo-Celtic heritage.
I thought, rightly, that Stephen Kelman’s ‘Pigeon English’ (2011) would add a bit of diversity to my reading list: still an English author, still an English setting, but this awfully sad novel is told through the eyes of an eleven year old boy from Ghana.
The title is not altogether the play on ‘pidgin’ which first attracted me. I have no memories of living in Papua New Guinea as a child, but there are family stories that circle around pidgin English as spoken by the locals. I wrote a whole story of 5000 words just so I could use the pidgin word for piano. Big pella bokus you fight im long teeth e cry. Irresistible! (‘Staking the Tomatoes,’ was published in Conversations, 2005).
And we still laugh at my mother’s title. This was a different era. PNG was a colony of Australia and my father was masta Bevan, making mum, missus belong masta Bevan.
I didn’t expect the title of Kelman’s novel to be quite so literal. Not pidgin – actually pigeon! At certain points a real pigeon breaks into the narrative, observing, having his say, using his pigeon English. One to add to my list of novel narrators.
Ignoring the pigeon (which was tempting), there is an arresting play with language in ‘Pigeon English.’ Harri uses words from home mixed with the vernacular of the council estates, and he loves words, finding new favourites along the way. Hutious, dope-fine, chooked, asweh, donkey hours become as familiar to the reader as anything in the Oxford.
There are also misunderstandings – he is a naïve child for all the violence around him, and the violence he is lured into. Language is interpreted. He imagines sucking off is hard kissing; if you get detention ‘the teacher’s allowed rape you’ (p. 81); a virgin is an unmarried woman the gods can eat. ‘Married ladies gave them the shits’ (p. 103).
The story begins with the murder of a slightly older boy in their circle. Harri and his friend are investigating. They want to be superheroes, they collect fingerprints and try without success to get urine samples. They are out of their depth.
‘The devil is stronger here because the buildings are too high. There’s too many towers and they get in the way of the sky so God can’t see so far’ (p. 122).
It is a delicate operation for a writer to realise an eleven year old boy so fully, while at the same time allowing the reader to see the dark underbelly of life around him. Harri’s distinctive – delightful – voice carries us along. To the end.
The end of ‘Pigeon English’ is the end Stephen Kelman had to give us, given the trajectory of the story. Anything else would have been a sentimental copout. Unfortunately.
Image by Anton Croos. Perhaps this is the pigeon who watches over Harri.