In my long mornings as chair of an examining boards there are moments when you are not really doing anything, especially early in the mornings, before we start: you are waiting for things to be printed, for keys to be fetched, and because we work on the top floor of a very large building, minutes pass – five, sometimes ten. Last Friday, during one such empty spell I saw Penelope Lively’s The purple swamp hen and other stories among my e-books and I started reading it. I had bought it after reading about it in The Guardian‘s list of last year’s best books.
The collection starts with The purple swamp hen; from the little I’ve had time to sample, the other stories look alright, interesting and well written (I have only read two so far) but the initial short story is absolutely brilliant. It is set in a rich Roman villa in Pompei, just a few days before Vesuvium erupted and destroyed the town; it is told by an ornamental bird: a purple swamp hen, Porphyrio Porphyrio. says the bird, who is aware
Placing the narrative focus on animals and adopting their point of view is not new in literature – just think of Jack London or Rudyard Kipling, but the purple swamp hen observes the behaviour of the Roman upperclass family , their slaves and their occasional guests with a detachment and a keen sense of superiority which, combined with our notion of a hen’s limited intelligence , results in irony. The animal narrator takes away the sense of tragedy looming over the unsuspecting human characters, who look utterly stupid in their cruelty and basically get what they deserve. That the bird is aware that its image will be preserved somewhere in a fresco adds a nice metaliterary twist concerning time.
As I said, maybe the rest of the stories are less intriguing, but I recommend the book: I think The Purple swamp hen makes it worth buying whatever the stories I haven’t yet read are like.