SUNY Plattsburgh professor tells a rich story
Expect political pundits to mention Thomas More, who was executed in 1535 in London, as they comment on the impeachment hearings in Washington. As the famous and the obscure swear to tell the truth in our nation’s capital, the man who was beheaded for treason and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church will be referred to as a hero of conscience — a person who chose death over perjury.
In his rich and wonderful “Utopia Revisited,” SUNY Plattsburgh’s John Locke begins with More in prison awaiting his execution. But Locke’s focus is not on More’s problems with the king of England, but “Utopia,” a book More wrote in 1516.
More’s “Utopia” was a fantasy, a somewhat socialistic and peaceful world very different from 16th-century England. “Revisited” begins in More’s dungeon, where he is visited by two characters from the book he wrote. Soon we have left Thomas More in his dank cell and are following those two men, Peter Giles and Raphael Hythloday, on their journey to Utopia in the Caribbean.
This is a curious book — a fictionalized adventure of characters from another fiction. In addition to this unusual frame, Locke writes from various points of view, including ravens and iguanas and dolphins. Also, there are footnotes, making this an annotated novel, and a bibliography.
And it works.
It works because Locke puts a face on the Europeans and the aboriginal people they meet. His scholarship about the exploration of the Caribbean, especially around what is today Cuba, is evident, and clearly conveyed, but the characters make the story.
Giles and Hythloday are leading an unarmed “group of thinkers” who rescue a woman they call the Tempest Princess. The Princess is in fact an aboriginal woman named Leonor who, as an infant, survived a genocidal attack of her people. Raised by a loving Spaniard and educated by a Catholic cleric, she is on her way to Europe when her ship sinks and she is gathered up by the utopia-seekers.
The Europeans, however, haven’t rescued a demure 18-year-old young lady hoping to fit into some court in England. They’ve saved a woman who will lead them — and not very gently — on their journey. She is Xualla, no longer Leonor, recalling the teaching she received from Nohoch, whom she left when she boarded the ship for Europe. She is fearless and intelligent, and in charge.
Another delight in “Utopia Revisited” are the pictures that visually echo earlier generations of adventure books. Like the story, these, too, were done by Locke, who notes, “I chose my friends, family, students, neighbors, and colleagues to appear as the characters in the illustrations on these pages.”
As I mentioned, this is a curious book. The almost 400 pages are filled with pictures, various narrators, a bibliography, a glossary. A story that stretches from a London jail to tropical islands. Spaniards, English, Dutch, aboriginals. There is a lot that could go wrong here, and many places for it all to become too much, overwhelming, too ambitious, and fall apart.
But it doesn’t. In fact, each of the pieces — the chapters and the sections — can stand alone rather well. And the whole rewards — both the brain and the nostalgic memory of books that take the reader far away, where we might want to go as the noise in Washington increases.