Timothy Findley: Not Wanted on the Voyage
Writing a modern novel on the Noah’s Ark story may seem somewhat unusual but writing one as imaginatively brilliant as this is quite special. Yes, it is the Noah’s Ark story, replete with Noah and his wife, the animals two by two, the rain and floods and the doves, all set in biblical times, but Findley gives it numerous twists. Noah is Dr. Noah Noyes and his wife simply Mrs. Noyes. They have three children, as in the Bible, Shem, Ham and Japeth. Shem is tough and stupid. He is married to the mildly strange Hannah. She will become pregnant during the book and deliver a still-born baby, though it is suggested that Shem may not be the father. Ham is the scientific one and, during the book, marries Lucy. Japeth is the strange one. He is married to the eleven-year old Emma though we learn that the reason for this is that Emma, unusually, has a sister who has Down syndrome or something related (unusually because, as is made clear, babies with such symptoms were invariably killed at birth). As Noah and his wife also had a child with the same condition (they killed it at birth), Noah’s plan is that if Emma has a similar child, it can be blamed on her family and not his. However, this is not likely to happen soon as Japeth has no idea how to have sex. Prior to the start of the story, Japeth had run away and returned but coloured blue. Despite his mother’s intense scrubbing, the blue would not go. We later learn that he had been captured by a band of brigands, whose main source of food was travellers they found on the road. They marinated Japeth with wine, herbs, etc. but he managed to escape, though remained blue from the marinade.
In addition to the rich cast of humans, there is also a rich cast of highly intelligent animals who, in many cases, are able to communicate with one another and, in some cases, with humans. They are led by Mottyl, Mrs. Noyes’ cat. She is old and almost blind. However, at the beginning of the book, she is in heat and does get pregnant. She hates Dr. Noyes, who has killed her previous offspring and is responsible for her being blind in one eye. She is on very good terms with other animals, particularly the unicorn, the ring-tailed lemurs, the vixen and, her best friend, the crow (called Crowe). Much of the book concerns the communication between these various animals.
At the beginning of the novel two important events happen. One is the imminent arrival of Yaweh. Yaweh is portrayed as a tired old man. However, he arrives to see his old friend, Noah, accompanied by his armed guards, led by the Archangel Michael. On his way he has been attacked, killed seven times (he points out how painful and tiresome it is to regenerate) and had all manner of refuse thrown at him. In short, he is fed up with humans and announces a plan to Noah. We do not see the plan but, of course, we know what it is and it leads to Noah building the ark. Yaweh has brought all manner of exotic animals – elephant, giraffes, rhinoceroses – with him to be taken on the ark. The other key event starts with Emma’s dog. It is called Barky, for obvious reason. Mottyl finds out that it has been killed and sees that the culprit is an angel who is still scared of it, even dead. Mottyl had been warned about this angel by other animals and soon realizes that the angel is not a good angel. However, when Ham sees the angel, he sees a beautiful woman, who introduces herself as Lucy. We soon realize that Lucy is, in fact, Lucifer. The couple are quickly married.
The building of the ark and getting pairs of animals turns out to be quite complicated. Mrs. Noyes won’t go unless she can bring the now pregnant Mottyl but Noah makes it clear that Yaweh’s covenant only allows for two of each animal and he, Yaweh, has already provided two cats, wittily named Abraham and Sarah. Both Mottyl and Mrs. Noyes disappear during the rains but, eventually, Mrs. Noyes manages to smuggle Mottyl on board. Noah, who has already shown himself to be fairly autocratic, takes it to a new level once the ark is built. He and his favourites – Japeth, Shem and Hannah – are on the top deck, while the others are confined down below. As it is warmer down there, they are not too upset. Japeth becomes more belligerent and Noah more aggressive and autocratic. Meanwhile, rebellion is being fomented down below, particularly when the unicorn is killed. The book ends when they find land but the situation on the ark at that time is anything but happy.
Findley pulls out all the stops in his book. We get explanations as to why various creatures are no longer with us – demons, faeries (sic) and unicorns – and as to the symbiotic relationship between (good) humans and animals. Yaweh is simply a tired and somewhat irascible old man, while Noah is an autocrat. Lucifer/Lucy is bad but not too bad. Anachronisms abound, with Mrs. Noyes singing Over the sea to Skye and referring to Mozart. Above all the animals are handled superbly It could easily have been Doctor Doolittle-ish but it isn’t as the animals are intelligent and sensitive and nor all dumbed down. The book may not be to everyone’s liking but it has to be recognised as a brilliant feat of imagination.
First published 1984 by Viking