I am content as my first foray into the work of John Steinbeck reveals that he too loves a fable, and like the best of them, lets the story speak for itself.
His short novel ‘The Pearl’ is based on a Mexican folk tale about Kino and Juana, a young couple who live a basic existence, their joy of a first baby threatened when it suffers the sting of a scorpion.
Kino is a pearl diver and on the day he most needs a miracle, the discovery of a large pearl appears at first to be the answer to the couple’s prayer. However, its discovery disturbs the community’s tranquil equilibrium, it seems too much to embrace and while it is in their possession, it wreaks only havoc.
There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.
Despite the inevitability, I read with the wilful hope of an optimist, always searching for some altruistic sign, an indication of man’s humanity, the charitable gesture of an honest person. Steinbeck leads us along on this journey, as we develop our own understanding bathing in his glorious prose.
Now Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea on anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones that had been forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino…
Taking the pearl from its natural habitat changes its symbolism, for in nature it is pure, lustrous, a thing of splendour and inspiration, it represents the transformation of something irritable (the grain of sand) into something of divine beauty (the pearl). But removing it from the sea will corrupt everything that sees, hears of, imagines or touches it; it becomes representative of greed and avarice, the longer it stays in their possession, the greater its destructive power. But will returning it to nature undo its curse?
In addition to this enjoyable story, the book opens with a foreword which reads like a letter from Steinbeck’s wife Elaine. She shares something of the joy of his writing life, his impulsive and creative attempts to construct the perfect writing environment (including building a writing room in the back seat of his Ford Station Wagon) all of which for me, created an almost familiar context from which to begin reading the great man’s work.
Onward to his next oeuvre, Tortilla Flat awaits.