Herbert Read was a British poet and anarchist and an influential art critic. In 1953, he was knighted—strange, for an anarchist. He also wrote a strange novel that was published in 1935. The novel is called The Green Child. It’s the only novel Read wrote and is an autobiographical political fantasy. In the novel, the green children are two but one dies; The Green Child is three parts:
The first part begins, “The assassination of President Olivero, which took place in autumn of 1861, was for the world at large one of those innumerable incidents of a violent nature which characterise the politics of the South American continent. For twenty-four hours it loomed large in the headlines of the newspapers; but beyond an intimation, the next day, that General Iturbide had formed a provisional government with the full approval of the military party, the event had no further reverberations in the outer world. President Olivero, who had arranged his own assassination, made his way in a leisurely fashion to Europe. On the way he allowed his beard to grow.”
Olivero was Oliver, who is British. Oliver returns to his childhood home and is nostalgic. He stands on a bridge, watching a stream, which runs in the opposite direction it did when he was a boy and schoolteacher. He follows this mystery to its source.
The Green Child isn’t a popular novel, but the people who’ve read it often say this first part is the best, the most poetic. That’s not true. The first part—in which we learn about the green children who came to the village when Oliver left and the fate of the surviving child, now a green woman married to a stupid husband—is the weakest of the three, but does contain beautifully-written descriptions of delicate translucence. Oliver rescues the green woman.
Part two is the past. Oliver travels Europe, arrives in South America and Olivero inadvertently becomes the hero-liberator of a small country peopled mostly by simple natives. Olivero takes naturally to politics. He stages a coup d’état and becomes the political theorist behind the new government. Read even includes a short constitution that states, “Liberty and equality are guaranteed by justice, which is the principle of government in a society of free men.” Voting rights are interesting: male heads of households and widows may vote; priests may not. Usury is abolished, the government oversees all international trade, the government is three men, elected, and a secretary whom they appoint. When a bandit-type raises problems, Olivero leads a successful expedition against him. Eventually, the Bolivar life becomes boring and Olivero heads to England (to Part I.)
I like this part of the novel because it reminds me of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which was published a few years after. Read’s treatment of the Jesuits is fascinating.
The third part of The Green[e] Child is its most fantastic. Oliver goes with the green woman to her underworld, where life is not a cycle but a progression from the mobile and social to the introspective and hard. The green people are crystal people. They study, create and think about crystals, which are perfect. When a green person dies, his body is taken to a room, where crystal entombs it. The crystallized bodies are stacked and the vast caverns of the underworld will one day be full of them; and the living will have no more place. One reviewer called this a fascist world. I don’t understand Read’s intentions but his world flows counter to fascism, which thrives on and dies without perpetual action and mass movement; the green people strive for impenetrable stillness.
There are also pet beetles and snakes that curl around necks: The Green Child is an imaginative novel. The writing is curt and images striking, yet the amazing feels personal. If you can find The Green Child, you should read it.