One of my favourite books from last year was James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still, an epic Scottish novel of the type which is all too rare, covering the period from the end of the Second World War to the end of the last century. While it dealt with the politics and social concerns of that period the tale is always told through the eyes of rather distinctive individuals. There are few writers who manage to create eccentric and memorable characters who remain absolutely believable. The reason for this is that Robertson never loses sight of the people whose lives are most effected by larger events and it is their stories with which he is concerned.
He understands that is in the brief moments between individuals; the stolen kisses, the mutual understanding, or misunderstanding, the shared memories, hardships and successes that real drama is to be found. It doesn’t make the bigger picture of political/social/cultural concerns any less important, in fact it gives those concerns their importance because it is in these that individuals can find meaning and reasons to live that are beyond the selfishly personal, where they can start making things better for one other person and as a result making a difference for more.
It is this humanity that runs through all his work and which gives his writing context. For example the 2003 novel Joseph Knight, set against the background of Scots’ misadventures in the Caribbean, and the slave trade, centres on the defining relationship between two men. This is something that goes back to the novels of Walter Scott and later Robert Louis Stevenson where, for all the detail and background information, the thing that keeps the reader engaged is the human behaviour. There are few writers around today who manage to comment so insightfully upon the universal through the individual.
When I was asked last year by someone which Robertson novel is the best place to start I suggested his 2000 debut The Fanatic which displays the recognisable influences of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Hogg, but having read his new collection of short stories, Republics of the Mind I think I would now suggest that as a perfect introduction. These are stories collected from Robertson’s past and present and you can discover the themes and concerns which appear in his longer work. I may be reading too much into this, but I think you can see in these stories the development of Robertson as a writer.
There is the gentle, yet disturbing surrealism of ‘Giraffe’ and ‘The Plague’ where man’s relationship to animals is used to tell us far more about human nature than Mother Nature. In ‘Tilt’, as in many of his stories, the narrator is someone who has lost their way in life, hanging on to what others call reality with the most tentative of grips. In this case it is the refusal of a pinball machine to act as Alan Sangster expects that causes him to fall over the edge. There is a theme of loneliness in many of the stories, even when the narrators seem to be with companions. In ‘The Jonah’, Billy has to make the decision whether to stick with his bad luck charm Sean or move on, and in ‘What Love Is’ Dan and Joan are living very separate lives under the same roof. All of the stories have the ring of truth and at the heart of this is the belief that nothing in life is guaranteed, particularly not happiness.
But Robertson’s writing is never depressing, far from it. Rather these stories always provoke an emotional response. Particularly moving are ‘The Claw’ and the near title tale ‘Republic of the Mind’. In the former there is a heartbreaking description of a man who sees his grandfather ageing and who also has to face his own mortality. It is a great example of one of the things that the writer does very well, understanding that in everybody’s story there is humour, sadness, warmth, hope and fear and he incorporates all of these in examining two lives which are neither more or less important than anyone else’s. That’s the point.
In the ‘Republic of the Mind’ he opens on the night of a general election night that is so vivid I think I may have been in the same room sharing the visceral anger and crushing disappointment as results came in. The reaction of Robert is to retreat the the republic of the mind where he wants to reside with Kate. In a story of twenty pages Robertson asks questions about religion, existence, politics, history and love in a manner which simultaneously makes you feel insignificant in universal terms yet incredibly comforted that you are not alone.
This collection is another example of the rich rewards to be found in the shorter form of fiction. In the same month as the mammoth collection of short stories by Alasdair Gray was published, and in a year when some of the most eclectic and interesting writing has been found in collections of poetry and prose such as Elsewhere and Second Lives and in journals like Octavius, Valve and Gutter, this is another reminder that it is not in the form of writing that quality and insight is to be found, but in the writer. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Republics of the Mind is a stopgap until Robertson’s next novel, or that this is writing that sets anything less than the high standards of his longer work. If you are a reader looking to discover someone new then you could do no better than to invest in James Robertson, and, as I mentioned above, this is a fine place to start. For anyone already familiar I would suggest that Republics of the Mind is as essential as anything else he has written. I get the feeling that he wouldn’t have it any other way.