August 2014



The Green Child by Herbert Reed

Bizarre and frustratingly allegorical, The Green Child is hardly your usual reader's fantasy. Divided into three parts that can easily stand for three different books, it's the kind of novel that defies easy classification. So, we have Olivero, a former President who fakes his own assassination only to return to a homeland that still haunts his mind, a homeland that seems to be much shinier when imagined and framed against a background of personal and political turmoil. And this is precisely the starting point of a narrative that spins like a teetotum as, once home, Olivero witnesses a new version for everything he remembered of those forgotten places. He follows a stream that runs toward a church, rather than from it, only to come across a green-skinned female child who is kept captive and fed with a lamb's blood by a man who turns out to be her husband. And, of course, he frees her. But what's interesting about this first part of the book is the myth is based on, the myth of the mysterious green children, a boy and a girl, who were reportedly found in England, somewhere in the twelfth century. A local adopts these children, unable to speak any known language and surviving on a basic diet that included no meat except for fish, but only the girl survived to tell her story, once she learned English. And she spoke of the strange, parallel, subterranean universe she called home.

Moreover, these children, who were lightly clothed in a green web-like material of obscure manufacture, were further distinguished by the extraordinary quality of their flesh, which was of a green semi-translucent texture, perhaps more like the flesh of a cactus plant than anything else, but of course much more delicate and sensitive. (...) The Green Child was not merely ignorant of normal sexual cravings; she was entirely devoid of them. She fled from Kneeshaw's embraces as from a hot-breathed faun. She fled out into the night, into the woods, into the branches of the acacia tree that strangely existed in this lonely spot, and there the feathery leaves held her in a safe retreat. She liked the cold water of the millrace, and without shame or hesitation would throw off her frock and flat like a mermaid, almost invisible, in the watery element. She did not seem to have any affection for human beings or animals.

The middle part of the book, the one narrated from Olivero's own point of view and where he becomes a dictator in a fictitious Latin American colony named Roncador, is the longest, mixing key ingredients of bourgeois and liberal revolutions with military strategies and existential frustrations. It's precisely the point where a passive Olivero displays his arrogant view on the common sense and judgment of the so-called "common" people, the people who seem to need, in his view, someone to tell them what to do, in this case, a self-assured intellectual. Read's cynicism is obvious even for the reader who tries hard to stay indifferent to all the red flags raised about the American democracy, performed as a "We know better" strategy in the Latin American colonies. And once bored with his revolutionary playground now turned into a mechanically functioning republic that does not need its creator anymore, Olivero stages his own assassination and flees to his homeland, hoping to find what he currently lacks: wisdom. This middle part seems to be the piece that keeps the other two in place -- a sort of translucent "glue" that brings a more realistic, down-to-earth tone, counteracting and even balancing the rest of the book. It's the political background from which Olivero tries to escape and succeeds. But he is still carrying itchy memories of it:

I acted from day to day, always on the principle of removing any causes of friction, of making equality and fraternity realities, and justice the normal procedure. Against such a policy there is no possibility of revolt; for any immoral and anti-social tendencies will be individual and self-proclaimed, powerless against the general will for good. Such being the stability and happiness of our state, it may seem incredible that doubts should have entered my mind. At first the doubts were not formulated as such; I was merely seized by an uncontrollable depression, which I vainly tried to trace to climatic or physical conditions. But it soon became clear to me that the causes were mental, that I was enveloped in a spiritual lassitude for which profounder explanations were necessary.

Lacking any trace of sexuality, changing her skin color according to what she experiences, and dying of domestic bliss in the company of her husband who tries to force-feed her, the green child who Olivero meets once back home is a dreamlike being. He decides to accompany her back into the grotto-like underworld from which she came. He decides to take her back to her own people, the people who are living only to search for the final perfection, a perfection that comes in solidified forms requiring years and years of preparation and contemplation. Eventually, accompanied only by a strange pet, Olivero dwells his final days at first as a leader and then as a recluse.

When Olivero and Siloen reappeared before the Judges, the one in the middle spoke again and told them to descend to the lowest ledge, and to stay there until they were satiated with the pleasures of youth; then they must separate and join with others who were passing into the second ledge, where they would enjoy the pleasures of manual work; and then, since his age already entitled him to pass beyond the second ledge, Olivero might proceed to the upper ledge, where he would enjoy the pleasures of opinion and argument. In that state he would stay a long time, until he was fit for the highest pleasure, which is solitary thought; and then he might retire to a distant grotto.

The Green Child is a slippery narrative, a weird myth that refuses you the satisfaction of grasping its genuine meaning. In fact, it can easily mean anything you want. Or not.

The Green Child by Herbert Reed
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811221825
208 pages