Sometimes at the centre of a novel a new character is introduced who changes everything. In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it’s not until the middle that we meet the title character. And it’s then that everything changes for the German boy, Bruno:
“The boy was smaller than Bruno and was sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression. He wore the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore, and a striped cloth cap on his head. He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty. On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it.”
Half-way through Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the patient arrives at the point in his tale where his tough personal barrier was penetrated. ‘I am a man who kept the codes of my behaviour separate,’ he says on p. 144. Then the turning point: we learn why and how he ended up in hospital (well, a hospital of sorts), the turning point in his life where it dawned on him that Clifton’s wife, Katharine, was breaking down his defences, and this led to a relationship, and this led to an accident. On p. 150 of 300 pages, I read this:
“He said later it was propinquity. Propinquity in the desert. It does that here, he said. He loved the word – the propinquity of water, the propinquity of two or three bodies in a car driving the Sand Sea for six hours. Her sweating knee beside the gearbox of the truck, the knee swerving, rising with the bumps. In the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you.”
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) is 216 pages long and the middle page (of my edition) is p. 108, where Hanna, a former guard in a Nazi concentration camp, is on trial for her part in locking women prisoners in a church which was then bombed and burnt down. Two pages later, on p. 110, Hanna asks the judge a question which leaves him, and us the readers, on shaky ground. The judge searches for an answer, stalls for time, and eventually answers unsatisfactorily. We the readers read on, hoping a better answer is offered in the second half of the novel.
Here’s the portion of the conversation that puts the ball in the judge’s court:
‘Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?’
‘Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones.’
‘So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?’
Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
‘I … I mean … so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.
To find the centre of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (translated by William Weaver), I have to begin by counting the pages of the first prologue which precedes the second prologue. The first one appears to be a kind of introduction by the author, an account of how Eco came to write this story. But he’s shrewd; the first prologue is all fiction, just like the rest of the story. Added to the pages of the story, (pp. 3 – 493), the total number in my edition is about 498, making the centre a sub-title page, “Fourth Day”. But I turn the page and find the spot where the young monk, the narrator, starts to feel certain his fellow monks are not simply dying one by one, they are being murdered. A coincidence is revealed at this halfway point, leading the reader to guess why the monks in this wealthy Italian monastery are being permanently silenced.
“The other day I observed Venantius’s hands, when the blood had been washed off, and I noticed a detail to which I attached little importance. The tips of two fingers of Venantius’s right hand were dark, as if blackened by some dark substance. Exactly – you see? – like two fingertips of Berengar now. In fact, here we have a trace also on the third finger. At the time I thought that Venantius had handled some inks in the scriptorium. . . . “
In the middle of a novel, a few lines often show the reader that a character’s world is about to become unfamiliar and unsafe. It can be a turning point, a point where a journey begins and when the action starts.
I’d like to share some of these lines with you. I’ll go to the half-way point of a novel, give or take a page, and scan it for something I wish I’d written myself. Today I picked up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, turned to the opening page, p. 13, then the last page, p. 253, and calculated the rough centre would be at about p. 120. I read the page and found these admirable words, which indeed are the point where a journey begins:
“There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go. Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description. Before you could get round it in the South, you would get into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer.”