Friday, May 6, 2011

Highland River

Hesse's Siddhartha discovers enlightenment by following the rhythms, the teaching of a river.

Kenn's ambitions in Neil Gunn's wonderful 'Highland River' is more modest in ambition: the education of a young man through the mediums of both nature and community; and, yet the narratives do touch because at the core of both is a liberatory experience, the consciousness of a transformative mystery.

"In some such mood the Creator must have looked upon his handiwork and called it good. Kenn has long suspected that at the core of goodness there is neither solemnity nor observance, but only this excitement of a perfect creation."

This rhythm of seeing is at the heart of the book when the world is not exalted but simply seen, when all falls into its place and flows. For this river is a deep symbol, and exploring the river, and allowing the river to explore Kenn is at the heart of the book. A book that symbolically ends with a journey to the river's source.

But the book works at many levels - there is the strand that talks of the 'folk': the education in and within a community that shapes character and fashions affections and which (this is written in 1937) is a meaningful counterpoint to darker (and more disembodied) forms of nationalism infecting Europe.

There is a celebration of nature - the sheer beauty even in the simplest, most austere natural forms and the challenges of living from it - the poaching of salmon, the fishing of the sea.

It is beautifully written, deeply autobiographical and a quiet, unsung masterpiece.

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