Authors: John Burnside
In Persian Myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. This palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House.
In his first novel, John Burnside explores the possibilities inherent in a modern-day repetition of Akbar's investigations. Following the death of his mother, the unnamed narrator creates a twisted variant of the Dumb House, finally using his own children as subjects in a bizarre experiment. When the children develop a musical language of their own, however, their gaoler is the one who is excluded, and he extracts an appalling revenge.
John Burnside was born in 1955 and now lives in Fife. He has published six collections of poetry, the most recent being
A Normal Skin
, and has received a number of awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He was selected as one of the twenty New Generation Poets in 1994.
The Dumb House
is his first novel.
BY JOHN BURNSIDE
The Dumb House
The Myth of the Twin
Swimming in the Flood
A Normal Skin
I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instruments might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.
No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world. Each of these events was an inevitability, one thread in the fabric of what might be called destiny, for want of a better word â a thread that neither I nor anyone else could have removed without corrupting the whole design. I chose to perform the laryngotomies, if only to halt their constant singing â if singing is what you would call it â that ululation that permeated my waking hours, and entered my sleep through every crevice of my dreams. At the time, though, I would have said it was a logical act, another step in the research I had begun almost four years before â the single most important experiment that a human being can perform: to find the locus of the soul, the one gift that sets us apart from the animals; to find it, first by an act of deprivation and then, later, by a logical and necessary destruction. It surprised me how easy it was to operate on those two half-realised beings. They existed in a different world: the world of laboratory rats, or the shifting and functionless space of the truly autistic.
That experiment is over now. It was terminated, only in order that it might begin again, in a different form. If I know anything, I know this is the true pattern of our lives: a constant repetition, with small, yet significant variations, unfolding through the
years. The experiment with the twins was just one variation on a lifelong theme. If it had been a conventional piece of work, I would be writing up the results; describing, in abstract language, an initial problem, a series of hypotheses and tests, a final outcome. Everything would be clearly stated, in scientific terms. But this was not a conventional piece of work. There is no way to describe this experiment without describing everything that has happened, from the morning I first learned to talk, thirty years ago, to the moment I locked the door of the basement room, leaving the twins inside, silenced now, gazing at one another with those expressions of grieved bewilderment that finally made it impossible for the experiment to continue. I switched on the music before I left, but I still had no way of knowing what it had meant to them during their years of isolation. Outside, I put my eye to the observation grille for a last look; they seemed not to have noticed my departure. Quietly, I left them to digest their poisoned meal, went upstairs to check on Karen, then made a pot of coffee and waited.
It seems odd now, this silence. Perhaps it was what I expected all along; perhaps it was what I wanted. This silence is more than the absence of sound. This is something I have earned: now I understand that, without it, I could not have contemplated this account. I had to know what the end was before I started. Now I can begin at the beginning, with Mother in her fine clothes, coming to my room in the evenings to read me stories, Mother in her pearls and beautiful dresses, one of those exquisite parasites which infect and inhabit their host, without ever going so far as to destroy it entirely â and even, in this case, creating the illusion of a natural symbiosis, a mutual nourishment. It is impossible not to admire such elegance.
Not that I would judge her harshly for that. I loved her as much as it is possible to love anyone. Looking back, I can see her
faults. I can be detached, even clinical, in my analysis of our life together; yet, even now, I still love her. As a child, I was stunned by the presence of that marvellous being, that woman who had made of herself an object so beautiful that even she would stop sometimes and wonder at her own reflection in a mirror or a darkened pane of glass. As children, we love who we can. My father was shy with me, difficult, wrapped in a cocoon, always afraid that I would enter somehow, and touch him. I think he was more afraid of me than he was of Mother: he was haunted by a possible betrayal, by seeming to be the one who intruded between us, so he adopted the role Mother had prescribed for him, the role of invisible husband.
At some level, I probably always knew how distant Mother was, even from me. She was always working, like an architect, building a house of stories, treating her life and mine as a piece of fiction. I knew she was engaged in an exercise, an invention in the old sense of the word: everything she did was controlled, every story she told was a ritual. Nothing ever varied, and I admired that. Our relationship resembled that of the priest and the altar boy at Mass: she was the celebrant, I was the witness; our roles and offices were divinely appointed, therefore inevitable. Even now, I suspect she was right: because of her stratagems, our life was ordered. We could avoid intimacy without skulking in our rooms, as my father did; by the use of rituals and stories, she created a neutral ground where we could meet, where everything could be kept under control, and nothing would slip beyond the boundaries we set for ourselves.
When others were present, we were formal, perhaps even cold. It was my father who opened up to guests, telling them stories about his early years in the business, his time in Palestine, his clumsy courtship of my mother, inviting his listeners into a form of collaboration, while she regarded him with a remote,
almost contemptuous expression. His favourite story was the one about their first meeting â how, walking a country road, in the summer twilight, he encountered a beautiful young woman with curly brown hair, lugging a parcel along Blackness Lane. He was in uniform at the time. He stopped and offered to help, and that was how they met: a man in uniform, home on leave, visiting a friend from a neighbouring village, and the pretty girl who let him carry her package, then hardly said a word to him all the way home. Mother would listen while he told this story, then interrupt, towards the end.
âIt was nothing like that,' she would say to the guests. Then she would turn to my father and say, in seeming mock-annoyance, âI wish you wouldn't tell such ridiculous stories.'
Mother insisted on my presence at these gatherings; she wanted a witness to my father's folly and I fulfilled the office to the best of my ability, which only made my father more awkward with me later, after the guests had left. At the time, I suspected his stories were true â I even understood his bewilderment â but they failed to meet Mother's standards, not of truth, but of correctness, a standard that might be applied to a piece of fiction, or a portrait. I see now how I resemble her. Sometimes, standing in the kitchen, I look out at the dark, and I see her face, gazing back at me from the shrubbery. It's my own face, but it only takes a minor trick of the light and I see her in myself: the same eyes, the same mouth. It's an easy resemblance to find, but it has taken me till now to see that I also resemble my father â how I am just as weak as he was, and how it was that weakness that caused the experiment with the twins to fail. Something in my spirit is irresolute. Everything should be taken seriously, in the spirit of a game; I should have carried out this experiment with the same unwavering attentiveness that is demanded by a puzzle, or a good story. That is the essence
of scientific endeavour. My problem was that I failed to play; I was solemn, rather than serious. I didn't think enough. I failed to translate the intention into the act.
Later, when I went down to the basement, the twins were dead. They lay on the floor near one of the speakers; they were huddled together, embracing one another in a way that reminded me of young monkeys, the way they cling to anything when they are frightened. I waited a long time before I opened the door. I think, even then, that I was afraid of them, afraid they were tricking me in some inexplicable fashion, afraid they were not really dead, but pretending, hoping to catch me unawares. Yet what harm could they have done me? They were small children, after all. I opened the door and crossed to where they lay: they were dead, of course, and it seemed they had died without too much suffering. Certainly their pain would have been minimal, compared to the agonies Lillian had endured, in those few days after they were born. I was glad of that. It seemed appropriate to bury them next to her, in the iris garden, and that was what I did, working all afternoon to prepare the grave, then carrying them out, one by one, in the evening twilight, and laying them out, side by side, face to face in the wet earth. Now it is midnight. Karen Olerud is upstairs, still asleep in her soft prison. I am, to all intents and purposes, alone. Now, at last, I can begin again.
From the moment I first learned to talk, I felt I was being tricked out of something. I remember it still â the memory is clear and indisputable: I am standing in the garden, and Mother is saying the word
over and over, reciting it like a magic spell and pointing to the blossoms on the trellis, sugar-pink and slightly overblown â and I am listening, watching her lips move, still trying to disconnect the flower from the sound. I was already
too old to be learning to talk â maybe two, or getting on for three. For a long time, I refused to speak â or so Mother told me. Though I appeared intelligent in other ways, I had problems with language. She had even gone to the doctor about it, but he had told her such things happened, it was quite normal, I would learn to talk sooner or later, in my own time, and I would quickly make up the ground I had lost. He was right. When I did begin speaking, it was a kind of capitulation, as if a tension in my body had broken, and I spoke my first word that afternoon, the word
, meaning that pink, fleshy thing that suddenly flared out from the indescribable continuum of my world, and became an object.
The trick and the beauty of language is that it seems to order the whole universe, misleading us into believing that we live in sight of a rational space, a possible harmony. But if words distance us from the present, so we never quite seize the reality of things, they make an absolute fiction of the past. Now, when I look back, I remember a different world: what must have seemed random and chaotic at the time appears perfectly logical as I tell it, invested with a clarity that even suggests a purpose, a meaning to life. I remember the country around our house as it was before they built the new estates: a dense, infinite darkness filled with sheltering birds and holly trees steeped in the Fifties. I remember the old village: children going from house to house in white sheets, singing and laughing in the dark, waving to us as our car glided by. I remember those months of being alone here, after Mother died. At night, when the land was quiet and still, I would take off my clothes and go naked from room to room, then out into the cool moonlight, wandering amongst the flower beds like an animal, or a changeling from one of Mother's fairy stories. The garden is walled on all sides; no one could see me, and the house was so far from the village
that I would hear nothing but the owls in the woods, and the occasional barking of foxes out on the meadow. Sometimes I wondered if I was real â my body would be different, clothed in its own sticky-sweet smell, a smell like sleep, laced with Chanel No. 19 from Mother's dressing table.