Escaping the Human Condition at Polperro

Russell Hoban’s 1975 book Turtle Diary has now been added to the Penguin Modern Classics list, a very proper honour (if it is one). This most original and poignant novel tells the story, in their own alternating diaries, of two solitary Londoners, identified only as William G. and Neaera H., both somehow stranded in mid-life. They are brought together by an urge to free the sea turtles being displayed at London Zoo in “their little bed-sitter of ocean”. Since the keeper himself agrees with them that the turtles shouldn’t be there, the liberation is not as difficult to accomplish as might have been expected. In fact the first paperback edition (1977) makes no prior secret of its success: the front cover shows the turtles heading out to sea from their launching-point at Polperro in Cornwall.

Turtle cover 1

Perhaps then it’s going to be a story of the type commonly called ‘heart-warming’, with two lonely people finding happiness together, the turtles merely the submissive means? Perhaps even, as one online commentator records having to explain to his mother, the turtles are “but a metaphor”, a charming way to show that human beings have the power to liberate themselves? More formal critical discussions of the novel tend to assume so, treating the turtles as story-line, and the humans as the real plot (they’re persons, after all). But that’s not true to the book.

William G. and Neaera H. do indeed seem to be, in different ways, renewed by what they’ve done for the turtles, but there’s no confidence about it: as the zoo-keeper says to William, “Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” And certainly they don’t find happiness together; the last page has them going separate ways (a finality which the film version of 1985, generally faithful to the text, couldn’t quite agree to: for more about the film, see the notes).

Besides, the book insists, in so far as a fiction can, on the self-sufficient reality of the turtles. It’s their characterizing feature:

They may be headed for extinction, but they’re real, they work. When we put them in the sea, they’ll do real turtle work.

This reality is not a scientific matter; there’s little documentary zoology in the book, though the extraordinary migration-journeys of the turtles are much wondered about. Rather, it’s an existential reality, showing up as authentic all the more movingly in the context of that poor de-natured and tourist-dependent village in Cornwall: “When I think of the turtles going into the ocean,” Neaera writes,“I think of it happening in that place that so badly needs new reality.”

In fact an impatience with human unrealities is felt throughout the book. Both William and Neaera are caught up in fictions, he as working in a bookshop, she as a writer of “cosy, cheerful” children’s books about humanized animals: Gillian Vole’s Christmas, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, and so on. (Hoban is evidently making some fun of himself here, not just as a writer of this fiction, but as one who began his own literary career with a series of children’s stories about Frances the Badger.) But now, in their reaction to all this, they seem inclined to abjure the humanizing business altogether: “Anything is whatever it happens to be, why on earth make up stories?” An escape for the animals is implied in this vision of human forbearance. Thinking of kestrels, as pictured in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Windhover’, Neaera writes “they don’t want mannered words but only the simplest and fewest . . . preferably no words at all.” And accordingly she abandons her own project of making a publishable story out of the water-beetle which she has ordered by post and installed in an aquarium for that purpose:

Who am I to use the mystery of her in that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to be paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of?

No, the author of this book is not thinking of the turtles as metaphors. It’s the poor humans whose reality is equivocal, as that quotation suggests. And although the story-line of Turtle Diary shows turtles being set free by humans, the cumulative evidence of the book is the other way round: it is the animals who must save us. “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation,” Neaera thinks, “is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” Or at any rate, finding our proper place in the animal world must save us. As William says, “we’re all swimmers, we’ve all come from the ocean. Some of us are trying to find it again.” This rediscovery, so he reads in a book by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade, is what the shaman is able to experience on behalf of humanity. He quotes from the book:

While preparing for his ecstasy and during it, the shaman abolishes the present human condition and, for the time being, recovers the situation as it was in the beginning. Friendship with animals, knowledge of their language, transformation into an animal are so many signs that the shaman has re-established the ‘paradisal’ situation lost at the dawn of time.

“That’s the crux of it,” William thinks: “abolishing the present human condition.” And as he reflects upon this in relation to his own life, he shows where the turtles fit in:

Could I abolish the human condition? Could I swim, experience swimming, finding, navigating, fearlessness, unlostness? Could I come back with an answer? The unlostness itself would be the answer, I shouldn’t need to come back.

Described here is the answer as instanced in the turtles, but of course there are many other animals to think about, and the book does think about them. It begins in the zoo, and after that it touches upon spiders (being studied on space flights), birds, whales, animals in films and fictions (King Kong, Peter Rabbit), animals in the news. All of them are more or less caught up in the “human condition” – insulted by human vulgarity (“sharks . . . the ultimate challenge”, a documentary film-maker brags) or in other ways harried by our human refusal, restless as we are in our own unsettled identity, to let other things be themselves (“Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.”

It’s this conspectus of harassed animal life that gives the freeing of the turtles a significance beyond itself. For although, as I’ve said, that action is not as complicated as Hoban might easily have made it (this story isn’t a ‘caper’ any more than a ‘romantic comedy’), it’s manifestly an important one. The two agents of it feel it not as an adventure but as a portentous obligation, “a massive chain welded to leg irons on both of us”. Neaera thinks, “I feel a gathering-up in me as if I’m going to die soon, I await a Day of Judgement.”

When the turtles have indeed been launched, just before dawn in Polperro, there’s a moment of exhilaration, of shaman-like re-unity: “it seemed all at once that I didn’t need answers to anything,” William writes. “Where the moon ended and I began and which was which was of no consequence. Everything was what it was and the awareness of it was part of it.” But this ecstasy is quickly borne down by the pains and puzzlements of ordinary life which Hoban so sympathetically describes. And when Neaera, suffering this reaction, re-visits the keeper at his aquarium, he offers a more resigned, perhaps more forgiving, summary of it all:

‘There’s nothing you can do about this, you know,’ he said. ‘Nothing to be done really about the animals. Anything you do looks foolish. The answer isn’t in us. It’s almost as if we’re put here on earth to show how silly they aren’t.’

The mixture of kindness and surrender in this consolation makes Neaera cry. “It’s all right,” the keeper says, tenderly. “You needn’t hold back, these are all salt-water tanks.”

Penguin turtle cover

Notes and references:

The film Turtle Diary, 1985, stars Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, and Michael Gambon. It is mostly faithful to the book, though necessarily missing out much of the wit and brilliance of Russell Hoban’s writing, as well as much of the thinking. Also, with uncomfortable irony, it relied on public zoos to provide the turtles to be liberated – and then presumably put back in their tanks for public viewing. Still, it’s an excellent film, and although not available as a DVD it can at present be viewed online here:

As a book, Turtle Diary was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1975. Quotations are from the Picador paperback edition of 1977, as shown in the illustration along with the new, more post-modern, Penguin Classics cover (2021). There have been several other editions in between.

Attitudes at zoos like London Zoo have of course changed since the 1970s. At least some of the turtles kept there at present are themselves rescued (from smugglers), and the emphasis is all on ‘conservation’. However, looking at London Zoo’s web-site, I don’t find that the consumerist outlook has changed, or that the human clamour is in any way restrained (“the must-do experience! . . . your chance to get up-close to some of our most popular animals” etc.). If anything, the knowledge of animal scarcity has given the animals more exhibition value. Besides, looking at animals is fun!

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