From: The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
Penelope Lively is 85 years old, so it is somewhat unsurprising to find that a number of the stories in her latest short fiction collection – her first in more than two decades – deal with old age or the passage of time. Nor is it surprising, given Lively’s stylistic traditionalism, that these stories are cast in the mode of naturalism and told from a third-person perspective that exploits the free indirect style James Wood prizes as the apogee of fictional presentation.
All of this makes the title story in The Purple Swamp Hen something of an outlier. The story is narrated by the eponymous bird, “Porphyrio porhyrio, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials” – a Mediterranean purple swamp hen (also known as the Western purple swamp hen), one of “the home team,” which today find their habitat reduced and their existence jeopardized by human interference. Though the species survives in diminished numbers, the narrator of the story is not a contemporary bird. Rather, it is of the vintage that appeared in the renowned garden fresco from Pompeii during the time of the Roman Empire. That is, the narrator is a very, very old fowl, indeed.
This explicitly anti-realist approach is the first notable thing about Lively’s story (and puts one in mind of Aaron, the 500-year-old African grey parrot that narrates Gary Barwin’s novel Yiddish for Pirates). Her choice of narrator gives Lively a bird’s eye view, so to speak, of her material and allows the author to comment at one remove on the activities of the humans in the story. It also provides an opportunity for a playful engagement with the practice of storytelling itself. Following an introductory paragraph of factual information about the purple swamp hen, the garrulous bird addresses the reader directly: “Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story.”
On a literal level, that story takes place over the final days of the doomed Roman city, climaxing with the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius. On a broader allegorical level, it addresses human folly and environmental degradation and serves as a warning about our inability to learn from our own mistakes.
The bird that narrates Lively’s story appears bemused by the behaviour of the humans it observes, so decadent and unchecked does that behaviour appear. The purple swamp hen is a denizen of the garden belonging to Quintus Pompeius, a politician and wine merchant. Quintus’s estate “was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known. It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm. … We fauna simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens.” Both Quintus and his son sexually exploit the slave girl Servilia, who maintains an empathetic connection with the purple swamp hen. Though the polymorphous perversity witnessed by the bird is extreme, it is hardly beyond the scope of recognition from a contemporary perspective.
As with lust, so too with gluttony: the purple swamp hen is aghast at the amount of food the humans consume, far more than is necessary for simple survival. “They eat to excess, with deplorable consequences. Eating as entertainment it would appear to be. Along with the lavish consumption of wine, which has this humiliating effect on them.” Moreover, the bird proclaims curiosity about the practice of indentured servitude and slavery, the notion that humans “find it perfectly acceptable that one lot possesses another lot. So, half the inhabitants of the city wait upon the other half; a section of them are commodities, to be bought and sold like a loaf of bread or a flagon of wine.”
This narration is removed and dispassionate, as befits a neutral observer; the purple swamp hen alerts the reader to the fact that it has no vested interest in a particular strata of humanity, but rather takes a “forensic interest in the practices” of the species as a whole. What is notable about these practices is the extent to which they reflect our own time: an almost fanatical obsession with material possessions, a drive to consume more than we reasonably need, and a willingness to exploit those of a lower social class.
Equally notable is the Romans’ obliviousness to the natural environment that surrounds and sustains them. When the earth first begins to rumble, signalling the early stages of Vesuvius preparing to erupt, the purple swamp hen is instinctually aware that something is amiss, though the humans go about their business blithely unconcerned about the looming catastrophe. By the time they do pay attention, it is too late and the volcano destroys the city, along with everyone in it. Except, possibly, for Servilia, who has been tipped off by the purple swamp hen to leave. “On that day, of all days, there would be no attention paid to a runaway slave,” the narrator muses. “May she have run far.”
The conclusion of Lively’s brief story flashes into the future, to the imagined present, where the narrator projects the survival of its species “from that benighted age” into our own. “Where things are done differently,” or so the bird optimistically presumes. That things are not done all that differently from the ancient world of Lively’s imagining is the sardonic implication in her brief, fable-like tale. “The Purple Swamp Hen” provides a vision that spans centuries and continents, teasingly warning the reader that we ignore the past at our peril. In just under nine pages, Lively at once offers a divergent approach to narration, an environmental allegory, and a cautionary appraisal of humankind’s hubris and shortsightedness.