‘Mr Pye comes to the Island of Sark with a mission, to convert the islanders into a crusading force for the undiluted goodness he feels within.’
And for the most part, he begins in success; not only are the people on the island drawn in by Harold Pye’s mad magnanimity, but we as readers are oddly fascinated by this book. It is one of great writer Mervyn Peake’s smaller tales, about the struggle between good and evil and the consequences thereof.
Written after Gormenghast, but with slightly less iron-wrought prose, Mr Pye chronicles the struggle of fat, bizarre evangelist Harold Pye, on his travel to the quintessentially Peakeian island of Sark. In a repressive, ’50s English small-town atmosphere, Pye quickly befriends his ‘aggressively robust landlady’ Mrs Dredger, and joins similar forces with a painter named Thorpe and a prostitute named Tintagieu in order to spread the word of God.
Immediately noticeable are the names; as classically Peake as the setting. Less so is the style; although occasional elements of Gormenghast‘s painting-like writing are visible, for the most part Pye sticks to something more utilitarian. That’s not to say it’s written badly – quite the opposite – Peake’s utility is many writer’s opulence.
Despite being the most English thing I’ve ever read, the story actually reminds me in large part of Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified. After Pye has committed a swath of good deeds, a pair of wings begin to grow upon his back – a physical manifestation of his faith and goodness, similar to the boils and burns on Manolios’ face in Recrucified. Rather than rejoicing in the physical evidence of his holiness, however, Pye is horrified; the small-town mindset will reject him, he thinks, once they discover his new secret.
We are presented, then, with the idea that godly favour is not always a good thing, or rather, that we can choose to see it in a negative light, if we frame our circumstances in a certain way. Pye is choosing to believe that if the island discovers his wings, he will become a pariah; he will be unable to proselytise further, his mission will be ruined, his works undone. While that may have happened – and probably would have, given Dredger’s reaction (she being a sort of test subject of the island’s reaction) – it would have been the more spiritually pure action for Pye to continue regardless.
Pye’s great moral quandary is that he still has ties to the secular world – he still considers the opinions of the island important compared to the state of his soul. In this respect, he’s actually entirely unlike Manolios – apart from both being Christ-like figures and both suffering physical deformities as a direct result of faith, they are quite different. Manolios never really questions his path for a second, disregarding his betrothed Lenio in seconds once he realises his destiny ignores her; he offers himself up to the villagers willingly, several times, and spends the majority of the book asking, essentially, What Would Jesus Do? So he and Pye are not exactly similar beyond a surface-level comparison.
I will attempt to leave some suspense as to the novel’s contents, because why spoil a nice story, but suffice it to say that Pye’s soul quickly becomes a spiritual battleground. If we consider the effects of the wings on Pye during the novel from a secular perspective, God really has no merit over the devil. On the spiritual level, of course, God is presented as the ultimate good; but it’s not until the end that this goodness manifests in a way that actually helps Pye. So, the wings are essentially a symbol of faith, in that they…well, symbolise his faith, but also because they appear useless until the very end – much like many non-believers consider faith useless.
The novel ends, too, in a very biblical fashion, and it’s quite easy to draw the general arc of Christian mythology over the plot, from the genesis, to the birth of Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. Characters are also transferable to biblical counterparts – Tintagieu being a literal prostitute easily evokes Mary Magdalene, while Dredger and Thorpe are disciples – a Simon Peter and a Matthew of the modern day. Pye even performs miracles – getting a portly Ms George, who cannot walk, down the bottom of a very steep cliff.
Mr Pye is not Mervyn Peake’s best novel. But it can be read in a day, and it works as a kind of spinoff to Kazantzakis; a ‘what-if’ scenario for a more hesitant Manolios. Pye struggles in vain to remain mortal, not realising the impossibility of avoiding greatness – but this is the first strain of anything we see in him that isn’t simple faith, and it comes across as more human immediately – so I’ll say the first half of the book is quite inferior to the second.
Does that make Manolios a worse character than Mr Pye? I’ll daresay it does, even though Christ Recrucified is one of my favourite books; Manolios is explicitly a Christ figure and that novel happens more around him than it does to him for the most part. First-half Pye is an odd and contradictory caricature, whose early actions suggest something sinister that the rest of the novel fails to deliver; while second-half Pye is a rounded character with individual desires and tendencies – as well as problems.
The first half of the book – and the Penguin paperback I own is only 250 pages – is plagued by a real lack of depth, just because Pye lacks major obstacles. Later, Pye comes under fire from Peake for his poor understanding of what evil is – his armchair evangelism doesn’t mean much when he doesn’t even understand the allure of sin. Oddly, for the most part, the entirely natural and animalistic Tintagieu is presented in a better light than God Himself, from a secular perspective anyway, which reflects what I said earlier about how God’s benefits are invisible until the end.
And so we have Mr Pye, a short novel by Mervyn Peake. Somewhat oxymoronic, but it’s true! Mr Pye might fill a lazy Sunday afternoon, if you’re not busy. But Gormenghast is a far better work.