“We wanted the strangers to be comfortable. We wanted them to be more like us, and to be more responsive to our own willing faces. We wanted them to be available. Instead they moved around the hotel like ghosts.” Two strangers arrive in a small rural town, stripped of their identities and histories by the presumed trauma (suggested by one of the townsfolk as “Death. Colossal death.”) that caused them to leave the circumstances that had comprised their lives and expose themselves to the mercy of the townsfolk. The strangers are given nicknames and accommodated at first in a room at the hotel (a supposed place of ‘welcome’ to strangers), where they are repeatedly asked about their pasts, but they are what the townsfolk see as unwilling to talk. Is it possible to convey something that is beyond the experience of the hearer? It is language itself that is incapable of expressing the disaster. “If we must say that something looks likesomething else then we miss the opportunity to say what it is,” says the stranger nicknamed the Doctor. The strangers make a tangle of wire in an attempt to express their plight, but the townsfolk’s response is to replicate this model on a large enough scale in the garden to imprison the strangers (fortunately this diabolus-ex-machina transition is sufficiently downplayed to minimise its potential clumsiness). In fiction the symbolic is as literal as the literal. The cage is constructed by the townsfolk to separate them from the experience of those placed inside it. Although all that we know of the strangers (one, like the narrator, loves the music of Mendelssohn; the other, like the narrator’s uncle, the hotel proprietor, was a tennis player) demonstrates their similarity to their hosts, as soon as they are seen as ‘other’, the fears and the suppressed abject aspects of their perceivers are projected upon them. Kept in the cage, the key ‘lost’, the strangers are fed and hosed, and become, at first, something of a tourist attraction. Of necessity they must excrete in a corner of their enclosure. When one attempts to conceal the other when he is doing this, it is interpreted as display by the observers. For the sightseers, “the most common complaint is that a visitor was ‘looked at’. And the most common question? ‘Are the strangers happy?’ Of course they are. Why wouldn’t they be?” The narrator is an adolescent boy, who, like the strangers, is a refugee from an unfaceable trauma in his past that made him an orphan, who is given shelter by his aunt and uncle, and who, also like the strangers, is unnamed in the book, referred to by the nickname given to him by his uncle. The fate of the strangers is overseen by a group of ‘trustees’, who appoint themselves to grant or deny the basic necessities to the strangers. They are granted, first, the use of a hose and, later, as the weather cools, the use of an old electric plate warmer, but the use of both of these is so constrained as to be more of a cruelty than a kindness. The narrator is appointed to observe the strangers but to not interfere. He takes his task seriously, but fails to represent the plight of the strangers to the trustees, and, although in sympathy in some ways with the plight of the strangers, he takes no useful action to relieve them. “If I dash out there and offer sympathy, the moment will lose its authenticity. It will become confused with my reason for dashing out there.” His inaction and, by extension, the inaction of the trustees, is crueller and does more harm than the actions taken by some, such as by Mr Hughes, who pelts them with oranges: “Look at them, he said, Rubbing their shit in our faces.” The narrator’s role as an observer makes him not only complicit but catalytic in the treatment of the strangers. It is also he who does the actual labour of building a ‘monument’ to the strangers, a wall of stone that turns the cage into a virtual tomb, that conceals and denies the reality it represents. Words come unstuck from their meanings. It is the continued containment of the traumatised strangers in the cage as ‘other’ that aligns the narrator with society, that prevents him from being categorised as an outsider himself. When the strangers attempt to escape, he feels threatened: “As the strangers dig, I feel a surprising allegiance to the cage.” All demarcations will lead to prejudice and abuse if they are not actively challenged. The strangers are regarded more and more as animals, like those in the zoo or on the farm: “One morning I could not separate Doctor’s expectant look from those of thirsty cattle lined up at the fence.” As the book progresses the narrator overcomes his sympathy with the strangers and learns to see them as abject. “Doctor’s misery stops at the end of his nose. He is in his own world. I am in mine.” Due to the failure to take action, the degradation progresses towards its projected end. “Some awful accommodation is offered that at first everyone resists, then welcomes.” The garden is divided into “two worlds” by a high wall built by the narrator. On one side his uncle “bangs away with his racquet and ball,” alone, though the stranger, who “squats and shits on the other”, was a tennis player before his degradation. For a while I thought this book, written in anger over the ill-treatment and passivity Jones observed directed by ordinary citizens towards Syrian refugees in Hungary, would have been more suited to being a short story or novella, but I came to appreciate the appropriately drawn-out portrayal of passive cruelty and its dehumanising consequences. The book has been compared with Kafka by some, and there are some resemblances, albeit Jones’s is a small-town antipodean Kafkaism, but where Jones’s meanings have a mathematical relation to the narrative (usually stopping short of feeling forced, thanks to the narrator’s naivety and lack of perspicacity), the referents of Kafka’s allegories lie somewhere beyond analysis.
A powerful allegorical tale about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we can justify brutality.Two mysterious strangers turn up at a hotel in a small country town. Where have they come from? Who are they? What catastrophe are they fleeing?The townspeople want answers, but the strangers are unable to speak of their trauma. Before long, wary hospitality shifts to suspicion and fear, and the care of the men slides into appalling cruelty.Lloyd Jones's fable-like novel The Cage is a profound and unsettling novel.
Lloyd Jones is one of New Zealand's best known contemporary writers. He has published essays and children's books but his best known works include the novels The Book of Fame, winner of numerous literary awards, Biografi, a New York Times Notable Book, Choo Woo, Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, Paint Your Wife, HandaMe Down Worldaand the phenomenally successful Mister Pip, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Montana Medal for Fiction and the Kiriyama Writers' Prize. Mister Pip was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. He lives in the Wairarapa.