Sometimes the setting is so integral to a novel it becomes one of the characters defining the story. In other words, you could not transport the action to another location and still have the same book. Death in Venice comes to mind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums, Burmese Days and so on. Robert Frost’s poems could not be as effective and moving were they removed from rural life in New England. There are many examples.
Yet some of the greatest works of literature are not defined by their locale or period. Shakespeare’s plays can and have been performed far from the setting Shakespeare intended. Coriolanus has recently been transferred to the Balkans, Romeo and Juliet to a Miami-resembling Verona Beach. This has not detracted from their universal themes.
The same is not true though for many a work of literature and the description of the setting leaves as much impression on the reader as the characters or plot.
|The Windmills of La Mancha|
Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage to a setting because it came to life so clearly between the pages of a book you just had to see it for yourself? I once travelled through Spain in search of the towns and villages on the plains of La Mancha where Don Quixote is set. The journey turned into something of a wild goose chase through this windswept desert like region as the exact locations Cervantes based his story on had eluded historians for four centuries, and although we visited interesting villages, none of them exuded a romantic aura associated with a chivalrous knight. The town of Villanueva de los Infantes has since been designated as The Place in La Mancha referred to at the start of Cervantes’ novel. It’s an unremarkable birthplace, but perhaps that was Cervantes’ intention suggesting a courageous knight was unlikely to emerge from such a place.
Unimpressive with harsh environmental conditions, the dry arid plains of La Mancha and their windmills are nevertheless integral to the story and the ride of the delusional Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza through the dusty terrain is what makes the story.
Sometimes places live up to expectations and sometimes they don’t. Two things drew me to Tasmania last January. One: the incredible art gallery, MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. A limestone cavern filled with spectacular works of art, it is an experience and an education that lives up to expectations. Two: the wild bush setting of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a spectacular journey into primeval Tasmanian forest, that is terrifying, dangerous and impenetrable.
The setting takes over as character once the expedition to find the Garden of Eden commences. The landscape plays tricks on the characters and does not give up secrets readily. By observing the terrain, the various parties believe they can find a way through the bush by using geology and logical deduction but they become hopelessly lost to the living, breathing power of the remote setting. The English passengers don’t fit into these powerful surroundings and the physical difficulties the parties encounter even contribute to mental breakdown.
That remote and impenetrable wilderness still exists in vast tracts in southern Tasmania where there are thousands of acres of land without roads and the only access is by foot. The startling thing is, the menace and danger of the English Passengers’ bush setting remains largely unchanged from when the story was set in 1857.
|Sidney Nolan's Snake at the Museum of Old and New Art|