Acts of translation: Mythic echoes on the Cornwall coast

May 5th, 2014, 11pm

It’s a weird kind of travel writing, when your itinerary is set by the ancestral voices of a fictional character’s family.

I was thinking about Cornwall, England, today. There’s buzz about Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn, airing on BBC.

I went to Cornwall to research the novel I was writing at the time. Ten days, alone. With only my characters for company. I could perch on a cliff, waiting for mythic echoes, with no one to ask, “Are we done here yet?”

One of my goals as a novelist is to enter the thoughts and imagination of a character and bring his or her experiences to life. Such travel becomes an act of translation: to take my own observations and translate them into the language of a particular other using the syntax of his personal history, passions, and avocations.

My Cornwall trip was different from any other vacation I’ve ever taken. And, I guess, I was unlike any tourist ever hosted at the charming Hotel Penzance. Not for me the recommended guidebook sights.

Jack Pentecost’s family — I discovered through extensive research — was rooted in the tin mining region of Cornwall. His great-great grandfather would have emigrated to Canada, to work the mine at Silver Islet, Ontario, around 1870. My first stop, I determined, was a mining town.

I returned to Hotel Penzance that evening, exhilarated from my excursion in a rented car.

“Did you go somewhere interesting?” the proprietor asked.

“St. Just!” I exclaimed, happy to have visited the home of Jack’s forebears — and to have survived the narrow roads.

“Oh, well,” he said, clearly disappointed by my choice. “You’ll find somewhere nicer tomorrow.”

It’s a weird kind of travel writing, when your agenda is set by the ancestral voices of a fictional character’s family.

After I returned home, it took me a while to synthesize the reams of notes, an SD card full of photos, and my shifting memories into a form that represented Jack’s thoughts on a similar ramble.

Here’s a sample:

Jack slung the pack on his back and the camera over one shoulder and struck out towards a marked footpath on the west side of the parking lot.

Lined with grasses and gorse, hardy plants that would survive salt-spray and winter gales, the path was well-traveled, but deserted. It dipped down from the summit to traverse the curve of Cox Cliff near its mid-point. Jack resisted the urge to look back toward Minack.

It was quiet. So quiet. And, yet, not. The surf crashed on the beach below; the wind soughed. Where a rickety footbridge crossed a tiny stream — the outflow of St. Levan’s well, perhaps — the water plinked and tinkled against the rocks as if they were crystals of purest glass. Jack’s pulse roared in his ears — not from exertion, but from an odd sort of exhilaration.

At the point where the path began to clamber up the hillside again, a semi-circle of large stones beckoned like a welcoming embrace. It didn’t look like much, but he realized this arc of boulders must be the remains of St. Levan’s chapel. “Chapel” — another misnomer. Oratory, maybe: a place of prayer, hardly large enough for a single hermit.

He set down his gear against the far wall. If he extended his arms, he could almost touch the other side of the cell. He closed his eyes, and turned slowly to take in the view as the good saint might have seen it.

Sweet Jesus. Yes.

Jack imagined sunrise over the eastern arm of the cliff. Waves, surging in trinities of increasing strength, broke themselves open upon the beach and headland. Grey seals and basking sharks — huge, but supposedly harmless — congregated in the surf at St. Levan’s feet like converts at a baptism.

Amused, he couldn’t help wondering: what would a holy fool do in this exalted spot? How would he spend his time? Earn his bread, acquire his food? In this deserted landscape — on solid granite, a land so blasted by the elements it can scarcely form pockets of soil in fissures between the rocks — what would sustain the people to whom he was meant to minister? Where would he find the pagan souls for whom he was supposed to pray and preach?

(c) Loranne Brown 2014

Jack was an undemanding companion: cheap to feed; didn’t make a mess in the bathroom. Even though he drove the agenda, he never once begged me to slow down on the A30 or asked “Are we done here yet?” And, though we clambered the same cliffside, his experience of the spot is different than mine.

Ultimately, the act of translation requires one to enter the point of view of a character so thoroughly you develop two memory sets of the place.

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Loranne Brown

Writing instructor, novelist (The Handless Maiden, Doubleday Canada 1998)

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