Jim Crace’s angels

October 28, 2022 0 Comments

It might seem that everything that can be said about angels has already been said.  But Jim Crace, in his latest novel, eden, gives them a new look, and a new, sinister identity.  In his eden (not Eden, you’ll notice) Adam and Eve were expelled some time ago (‘what fools they were to sacrifice their lives for liberty’), leaving a small group of immortal humans to inhabit the well-ordered fields and orchards of the perfect world.

Except that not everything is perfect.  The humans form a kind of labouring underclass, under the supervision and surveillance of the angels, who in return report to an invisible ‘lord’ (not, you’ll notice, ‘Lord’).  In the words of Crace’s fake epigraph,

Regard the Angels and
Their glisten’d Wings;
Behold their flightless underlings
At labour in the fields.


Albrecht Durer, Wing of a blue roller

The story begins with an angel summoning the workers, with ‘three beak-strikes on the clapper of the orchard-bell’, to observe and bury the corpse of a ‘jack’.  (A jackdaw?  Crace, as often, uses archaic and quasi-archaic vocabularies and constructions.)  The bird has flown beyond eden’s high walls to the world beyond, contracting the disease of mortality – a stern warning to the humans that they too risk death if they venture into the ‘stretching, pitiless’ world outside, full of ice, deserts, mountains, wild beasts and impoverished, brief lives.  Leaving eden, according to the angels, means abandoning the contented, permanent lives the workers enjoy and exchanging them for starvation, cold and death.

The angels were made by the lord in the image of birds, with taloned feet, large beaks and, above all, brilliant plumage:

An angel’s feathers are similar to birds’, despite their ostentation and flamboyance.  No bird – no macaw, bunting or jay – can boast a blue as deep …  The only other blues that can compare with it are found in pastures in the spring – those vivid speedwells and cornflowers …

Lucas Cranach, The golden age

The angels generally keep themselves to themselves, speak rarely, live together in lofts (the humans sleep in a crowded dormitory) and usually communicate with the workers through a go-between, spy and enforcer called Alum.  We only meet two of them individually.  Jamin, a ‘fallen angel’, shows too much interest in the extramural world and too much sympathy with the humans within, and is punished by an injury to one of his wings.  He is semi-detached from the disciplinary culture of the other angels and spends much of his time at the garden’s fishpond.

A few of the humans have doubts about the angels’ theology.  Bold and restive, Tabi is sceptical about the deadliness of the world outside and about the existence of the ‘lord’ (‘the master’s master is nothing more than hearsay’).  Ebon, who has a soft spot for her, is sympathetic, and Jamin the angel is dangerously close to both of them.  Tabi suddenly disappears from eden, and Alum reports her loss to the loft.  Jazib, the other named angel and ‘the grandest inquisitor of all’, commands him to discover what happened:

‘Don’t fail again.   We cannot tolerate …’  He lets his sentence hang unfinished in the air.  He means they cannot tolerate the flouting or loosening of rules.  Their power is diminished by the missing woman …  This is anger, red in bill and claw, but made all the more alarming by the seeming glee in the master’s eye.  For a moment, Alum expects the great beak, which now is just a reach away, to come crashing down onto his head, spilling everything inside, or that the angel’s talons will stretch out to slash his face and open up his chest, fulfilling every prophecy.

Ulisse Aldrovand, Ornithologia

Tabi’s disappearance must be reported to the lord of the garden, and two angels need to be selected for that unenviable task, and for the job of bringing back the message of what punishment will be exacted.  In the end Jazib, reassured by Alum, decides to do the work himself.

Tabi’s curiosity about the world beyond the walls sets in train events that eventually lead to the invasion of eden and its downfall.  After another ‘breakout’, by Ebon and Jamin, the gates of eden are opened.  The people outside begin to wander in, and later to ransack.  They look up into the sky, to find that the angels are evacuating eden:

What they witness is a sight to cherish and dismay.  A great cloud of blue ascending plumes, a storm of feathers and a sea of smoke which emerge out of the skylights of the angels’ lofts in harmonic unison.  They rise and pale, then seems so small, it’s said, that a hundred of them could easily find to dance on the head of a pin.  And then they disappear entirely into the thick and distant sky, to settle in their ancient places, never to return.

Jim Crace

eden is a kind of sequel to Milton’s Paradise lost.  And though it bears no obvious relation to Milton’s own sequel, Paradise regained, which deals with Satan’s unsuccessful temptation of Christ, it does have something in common with it.  The destruction of eden is hardly a disaster.  It’s more of a liberation, a discovery that security, ease and immortality are not worth having if their price is servitude, and enslavement to a false view of the universe.  The ordinary folk who burst into eden and put an end to it are themselves liberators.

Jim Crace was raised an atheist and may have no interest in theology in itself.  But he’s more than happy to use theology to press what is basically a political or moral message.  The society of eden is our own society: vastly unequal, with its gated communities and Amazon Fulfilment Centre labourers, who are disciplined by surveillance and extreme regulation, and imprisoned within what amounts to an open penitentiary, complete with hard labour.

The angels, brilliant but vicious and autocratic, are the guarantors of this unjust polity.  Their ‘assumption’ to (a non-existent?) heaven at the end of the novel is welcome.  So too is the knowledge that they will never return.  The end of eden might lead to a harder, finite life for those who remain, but at least they’ll be free to discover their own paths in life.  The book ends with an image from the future: ‘a woman with a new-born child that’s sporting on its head a bonnet brighter, bluer, than a summer sky and fashioned out of feathers from an angel’s wing’.

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