Though largely unregarded in the rest of the UK, Robin Jenkins remains valued in Scotland thanks, at least in part, to the continued presence of The Cone-Gatherers, his novel of conscientious objectors harvesting cones in the forests of aristocratic Christian Lady Runcie-Campbell during World War Two, in classrooms. (A stage adaptation is due later this year). Another novel of Scotland, The Changeling, about a young boy from the slums who is befriended by a teacher who feels he has potential, is also taught (though whether either remain so after the Scottish Qualifications Agency publish their list of set Scottish texts remains to be seen). Among readers, Jenkins is a novelist where acquaintance often leads to love, and this has kept many of his novels in print from Scottish publishers such as Canongate and Polygon. A few, however, have never been reprinted (a couple of years ago I posted about A Toast to the Lord), largely those set outside Scotland. As was the way in those days, Jenkins spent the first twenty years of his writing career publishing novels while also working at a ‘proper’ job as a teacher, first of all in Scotland then later in Afghanistan, Spain and Borneo. A fictionalised version of Borneo became the setting for a number of his novels, The Holy Tree among them.
Much of Jenkins work- The Changeling and The Cone-Gatherers included – is concerned with issues of class and morality, and The Holy Tree is no exception. The novel’s main character, Michael Eking, is a nineteen year old who has recently graduated from Primary school with the hope of going onto College. The Primary school’s headmaster, Mr Chin, has reduced Eking’s marks to prevent this happening, largely because of Eking’s origins:
“His family were jungle-kampong folk, poorer than church mice, for the latter had a decent shelter over their heads.”
The discrimination is also racial with Malayan society being rigidly hierarchical, with the British at the summit, the Chinese midway, and the native Dusuns (of which Eking is one) stranded at the bottom. The morality of the situation, then, seems initially very clear-cut: we know who to root for and who to boo when they appear on-page. However, right and wrong are more complex issues where Jenkins is concerned. He is, first of all, a master at the unfashionable omniscient narrative, moving from character to character, revealing both their choices and why they make them. Mr Chin is not only convinced that “so dangerous a pagan should not be rewarded by a Christian school,” but he correctly recognises Michael’s flaw:
“Eking’s desire for self-improvement…was a hunger, a greed, an obsession.”
It is this that will cause Michael to betray his own brother, a wanted man having fallen in with the leader of a failed Dusun revolution, in order to be granted the education he desires, forgoing any monetary reward:
“That is what I want, sir: a place in Api College. The money I shall give to the Principal to buy books for the library.”
Some characters approve of Michael’s choice; others find it abhorrent. Much is made of whether he is a ‘Judas’ (religion is never far from the surface in Jenkins work, and the professed Christianity of characters is often tested). It is into this web of moral complexity that the reader is forced and frequently tangled: it would take a certain sense of conviction (of which I can’t help but think Jenkins would disapprove) to be able to easily decide right from wrong in this novel.
If that were all, it would be enough, but Jenkins also raises political questions relating to both revolution and colonialism, and sex (more common in his foreign novels than his Scottish ones – it must be the climate) is also thrown into the moral mix. If you’re looking to discover and undiscovered writer, then Robin Jenkins would be a good place to start.