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Saturday
Apr122008

The Song of the Flying Fish

If you are familiar with my eating habits, you will forgive my repulsion at this story's most distasteful title.  As it were my disgust has no basis in fact, as the gilded gills in question are actually "eccentric and expensive toys" made of that most precious of metals.  They are also, for the time being, the property of Mr. Peregine Smart.  The elderly Smart is an indiscreet and wealthy collector of objects that might only interest similarly wealthy collectors.  No fewer than ten characters are sprinkled in the story's first three pages, one of whom is the humble priest and detective of the crime we assume will involve the titular species.  Almost all of these personalities, who cannot be explained in a short story without the thin film of stereotype, find themselves residing in close vicinity to one another in a provincial English town and, being men of some stature and financial freedom, begin to interact and share their theories of success. 
 
The most eccentric of these men is a certain Count de Lara, a French nobleman of Tartar countenance, who spares no effort to explain the 'mysteries of the Orient' to the more scientifically–minded of his colleagues.  Chesterton adores these types of debates, which are not really debates but opposing pamphlets, and to his credit always makes them shine with the gleam of novelty.  Of interest to the happenings in our story, De Lara includes several instances of thievery of a most baffling nature.  One particularly magnificent example takes place "outside an English barrack in the most modernized part of Cairo":
A sentinel was standing outside the grating of an iron gateway looking out between the bars on to the street.  There appeared outside the gate a beggar, barefoot and in native rags, who asked him, in English that was startlingly distinct and refined, for a certain official document kept in the building for safety.  The soldier told the man, of course, that he could not come inside; and the man answered, smiling: 'What is inside and what is outside?'  The soldier was still staring scornfully through the iron grating when he gradually realized that, though neither he nor the gate had moved, he was actually standing in the street and looking in at the barrack yard, where the beggar stood still and smiling and equally motionless.  Then, when the beggar turned towards the building, the sentry awoke to such sense as he had left, and shouted a warning to all the soldiers within the gated enclosure to hold the prisoner fast.  'You won't get out of here anyhow,' he said vindictively.  Then the beggar said in his silvery voice: 'What is outside and what is inside?'  And the soldier, still glaring through the same bars, saw that they were once more between him and the street, where the beggar stood free and smiling with a paper in his hand.
The superiority of the spiritual over the material needs no parable, nor is Chesterton's didacticism the least bit coy; but as he elaborates in this other book, a confession of his faith that has few parallels in English literature,  miracles only seem to count when something actually occurs or when some weirdness is perpetrated.  As his mouthpiece Father Brown quips, "all the supernatural acts we have yet heard of seem to be crimes."  
 
It is then of no surprise when we behold Mr. Smart "carrying the great glass bowl as reverently as if it had been the relic of a saint," because that is precisely the type of idolatrous appurtenance that Mr. Smart would worship.  In fact, one short paragraph brings together all the images necessary for Chesterton's symbolism:
Outside, the last edges of the sunset still clung to the corners of the green square; but inside, a lamp had already been kindled; and in the mingling of the two lights the coloured globe glowed like some monstrous jewel, and the fantastic outlines of the fiery fishes seemed to give it, indeed, something of the mystery of a talisman, like strange shapes seen by a seer in the crystal of doom.  Over the old man's shoulder the olive face of Imlack Smith stared like a sphinx. 
Imlack Smith, it should be noted, is a banker of a most bankerish disposition; what I mean by that I will leave to you to determine.  What happens subsequently is far beyond the reach of his tepid imagination, and yet well within the bounds of rational guesswork.  And while featuring one of the best short sentences ever written in English ("But the cold breath of business had sufficed to disperse the fumes of transcendental talk, and the guests began one after another to say farewell"), this is probably also the only story to contain both the phrases "spiritual burglary," and "a burst of taciturnity."  It is also, from start to finish, one of Father Brown's most exquisite adventures, and the competition Chesterton provides him makes that assessment all the more impressive.  There is far too much for me to praise in this square space, so I will leave to you to find a copy of this tale and relish every sentence, every analogy, every conclusion.  Pity that my aversion to seafood initially made me shun this gem in favor of more palatable options such as "The Doom of the Darnaways," and "The Three Tools of Death."  Those are, by the way, great stories.  Yet this special tale has something so powerful and yet so clear that our attention is seized and twisted into odd unfamiliar shapes.  Soothing, anodyne logic is provided in a race against an unbelievable crime; but sometimes "there are things even the police cars and wires won't outstrip."

Reader Comments (2)

Chesterton too? Better and better. On the subject of English converts to the Roman Catholic Church, how about a shot of Newman?

"... the pure mind / Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed."

--Who is the greatest writer, Dedalus?
--Of prose you mean?
--Yes.
--Newman, I think.

April 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermelancholykorean

Check out my "Open Letter on A Grammar of Assent" entry. I will certainly review the book in full at some point as it has always been one of my favorites. As for English's best prose writer, Newman or Melville, I think.

April 13, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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