“Treacle Walker” and the Triumphant Magic of Not Knowing

Updated: Nov 1

Column


Dear reader,


I think you would agree that the most precious and charming things in life have some strange understated power—and this power is simply quite difficult to comprehend. Remember the wise fox from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince?


“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”


We spend lifetimes trying to learn and know, but there’s so much more to these pursuits than we can ever imagine. The essential is annoyingly invisible to the eye; there’s some skill involved in seeing beyond what vision affords us in the here and now. But it’s all we ever want: to know, to be able to see, to find the essential with us at all times. We keep forgetting that that’s not the way the 'essential' works. It's terrible when we don’t have it all in life, but that’s all we want. Nida Fazli wrote a heartbreakingly real ghazal that suggests that we cannot have completeness in this lifetime:


"kabhii kisii ko mukammal jahaa.N nahii.n milataa

kahii.n zamiin to kahii.n aasamaan nahii.n milataa"


And yet, and yet, it is this awful completeness that we desire.


It's not like we don’t know all this already, but we run away from these confrontations with knowing that knowing is as much about un-knowing and not-knowing, as it is about knowing. In one of my favourite essays on The Little Prince, Adam Gopnik writes, “The world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again.” So it is then, that we must rise to the challenge, to witness as an outsider, the strange triumph of seeing through our own hearts. To find fullness in incompleteness, comfort in paradoxes and mellow joys in the everyday disappointments.


At this point, I should really start writing about the book I decided to write about this month, but ah! The Little Prince. An impossibly, maddeningly insightful book (insightful doesn’t cut it, really). A book I return to so often, mostly hoping that it might become my personality one day. The day is still awaited.


To overindulge in setting up the premise for this month’s column: The thing is, we have always been devoured by our desperate urgency of knowledge. To categorise, to label, to name, to understand, to deconstruct, to reorient, to structure. We do so many things to knowledge, except probably the one thing that really matters: question it. Or at least, we do not do that enough. But then there are books like The Little Prince and Treacle Walker (finally!) that come along when we’re obsessing about knowing certain certainties, books that contain ideas and words that slide under our apparently solidly rooted feet, and—allow me to use this word—yeet us into the farthest, deepest ends of a tireless ocean. Let’s call this ocean uncertainty. (See how pressing and natural is the need to know/name/classify?) These books that find us somehow at the right times and perform such mysterious magic that the world is never the same. Alan Garner’s Booker-shortlisted Treacle Walker is one of those books. Nobody asked, but yes, I am mildly miffed it didn’t win. But there’s some strange poetic significance to that event too, within the context of the charming little novella we’re spotlighting this month.


In Treacle Walker, a young boy, Joe Cappock, is mostly invested in the little things of the world: reads his comics, collects and treasures birds’ eggs, and marbles. And one day, he meets Treacle Walker, a wanderer and healer (and now one of my favourite literary characters) who talks in the most curious language, with sounds and riddles more than words, and behaves in the most curious ways, disappears and reappears on his own whims, for one. This unlikely pair forms an alliance that is built on the brick and mortar of frustrated questions from Joe and ridiculous answers from Walker. Seeing this friendship play out is like one of those heartwarming videos on the internet: like a parrot becoming friends with an octopus. Written in such disarmingly witty prose that finds music in its telling, I cannot emphasise enough how much you need to read this book. I didn’t understand a lot of it, I admit. But it comes back to me in a lot of my moments since then. And we know those are the best kinds of books, poems, and conversations. That permit such deep plunges, such endless visits and such charming hovels to seek an eerie comfort in.


In Treacle Walker, as Garner has said in multiple interviews, there is a redolent taste and smell of local myths and folklore of Cheshire—a place in which a lot of his excellent novels find their home. Garner says he took nine years to write this book. One might think that’s a lot of time, especially given the slim extent of the book and its plot, but that’s exactly the point. A good book is not about a lot, but just enough.


The wisdom of the book is really in two coherent sentences, amid two confusing conversations about love and time, respectively, but how do I explain the effect these two sentences had on me—like an unexpected, wild wind smacking one in the face, out of nowhere. What a thrill!


Read Treacle Walker just for these two sentences that put so much about love and time in perspective. Without any explanations. Read Treacle Walker to not-know these groundbreaking wisdoms. This is a book that captures the essential, and curiously manages to press it between pages that are visible. The most profound lessons in life are probably quite elusive and hurtful, but the tenor of the book offers two of these lessons as a life-giving balm. Please read it.


Hope you’re having a crispy, charming October. It’s the perfect time to read (and reread) books like The Little Prince and Treacle Walker.


Until next time.

Kartik

 

By Kartik Chauhan (Columnist)

Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. He finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary.

For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques.



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