The front jacket of the Fourth Estate 2014 version has the Guardian claiming “Something magical and not to be missed”. Now, it’s not often I agree with the vapid soundbite blurb on a cover but, in this case, it’s pretty much an accurate summary. Having read Ballard’s “The Drowned World”, I moved swiftly onto this one, exchanging a “wet sky stained by the setting sun” for “cities petrified beneath layers of prismatic crystal”. There are echoes of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in here; given Ballard’s novel focuses intently on the concept of polarity of light and dark, I think this novel the dazzling counterbalance to that 1899 accusation of the human condition. Like all the novels of Ballard’s “World” quartet, time is suspended for the narration, it is a fabulation that makes the reader hold breath whilst soaking in the lights of his words. Indeed, we find that tropes, then fragments of sentences, then whole paragraphs begin to crystallize around us as an understanding born of inductive reasoning enlightens us. It is the absence of syllogism that forces the reader (willingly) to stumble blindly through the lustre of Matarre’s forest until our protagonist, Dr Sanders, finds a kind of Christian salvation through the glittering icons of Catholicism that can deliquesce the crystals.
“However apostate we may be in this world, there perforce we become apostles of the prismatic sun.”
It is into this crystal forest that Ballard plunges us with a novel that is straightforward in regards of plot: Sanders leaves his leproserie to arrive at the Port Matarre after receiving a strange summons from a lover, Suzanne Clair. He arrives with the enigmatic Ventress (like Strangman in “The Drowned World”, he is another idiosyncratic nemesis of a “white suited figure and sharp skull”), finds himself caught up in an attempt to murder the latter, and then journeys with the journalist Louise Peret deep in to the jungle, to Mont Royal, to understand the truth about the crystalline force of the universe that is besetting the planet. As time itself leeches away, so the world around him begins to focus ever more sharply through a spectrum of deadly crystals, blinding everyone to an insane adoration where choices are instinctively drawn out of every person and the true nature of every being is revealed in a glorious transparency. We find ourselves encased in a story where “divisions into dark and light seemed everywhere around”. What follows is a series of journeys through the jungle in a race against time; either to hunt or to find or to escape: the journeys are striking in their individual need.
With him are characters that are lost in their own misery: the mine-owner, Thorensen, desperately trying to protect his wife, Serena; Captain Aragon who comes across like a sane Captain Ahab; Captain Radek who degenerates into a crystal man “lurching [one] stride after another, his pace quickening as the prismatic light of the forest mingled with his blood”; the “vitrified” crocodiles with ruby-jeweled eyes (caiman is a common reptilian theme for Ballard), the already lost Suzanne Clair who leads villagers in a mad dance reminiscent of Dickens’ Miss Havisham; the young African Kagwa who blindly follows his insane leader until, at the last, Sanders is the sole survivor to stagger from the crystal forest with his earlier “curious premonition of hope and longing, as if he were some fugitive Adam chancing upon a forgotten gateway to the forbidden paradise” gone, utterly replaced by the knowledge that “despite his relief at escaping from the forest, this feeling of flatness and unreality, of being in the slack shallows of a spent world, filled Sanders with a sense of failure and disappointment.”
As readers we experience this transition through Ballard’s coruscating language of prose, his fine attention to using a full prism of tropes that assail us with a sense of colour and light, time and time again. It is Louise Perot who idly notes that “when you first arrive here everything seems dark, but then you look at the forest and see the stars burning in the leaves”. It is the reader who, at the final page, realizes the stars are Ballard’s words, the leaves the pages of his novel, the forest the entirety of his masterpiece.