Ellis Sharp: Intolerable Tongues
In somewhat of a change of pace for Sharp, this novel starts off in a fairly conventional manner. Donald McCollum, a Scottish church minister, is visiting the Holy Land in the spring on 1939. He wants to visit many of the sites mentioned in the Bible and hires a local man to drive him around. Abbas actually owns a Rolls-Royce and is happy to drive McCollum around, though is understandably concerned about any damage to his car. The novel starts off with McCollum’s thoughts as he is viewing the various sites, linking them with what he has read about them in the Bible and his McEwan Blue Guide (presumably based on the Muirhead Blue Guides, published by Ernest Benn.) McCollum does think himself somewhat superior. He looks down on the natives, of course. But he considers himself a fine poet (the one example we see is awful) and is certainly holier than thou, often commenting on his own Christian virtues which, as we will see, he often lacks.
Gradually, things start to change. We learn of his background. He has been brought up by a stern and very religious father, who opposed all sin, including heating and any book other than the Bible. While religious in his own way, the young McCollum eventually discovers sin. While his father and a group of ministers go off to a meeting, the boys are left as a group and one of the things they have to do is gym every morning. Young McCollum is not too enthusiastic until he climbs a rope. With the rope between his legs, he notices a pleasurable sensation and, eventually, has an orgasm. He repeats this daily, hoping the other boys do not notice. When he gets home, he replicates this by rubbing up against the wardrobe. It seems that he has continued to masturbate throughout his adult life. He has never married, though he was engaged (he broke it off to her chagrin). During the book he meets Enid, who is wondering whether to marry an army chaplain. She asks his advice and his response is to propose to her. Her reaction is to decide to marry the chaplain.
In a not very subtle way, Sharp shows us his concern, as the first letters of each chapter spell out the word Palestine. McCollum himself is a Zionist, as he willingly admits. He first comes across the Palestine issue when they see a village which has just been attacked by the British occupying forces. The houses have all been destroyed and the British, as their Israeli successors would later do, are destroying the houses and the contents, including the food (one soldier urinates in the food). The women and children are being terrorised and the men have been rounded up. It is made clear that many of the men will be beaten and/or shot. This is not the first such incident he sees. Later he will be called on to minister to a dying English soldier who has been shot in a raid. The Palestinians are being punished for this. It is here that he meets Orde Wingate, who will later become famous for his exploits against the Japanese in World War II but whose early career was in Palestine. Wingate was a committed Christian and a committed Zionist. He viciously suppressed the Arabs and was friendly with the Jewish terrorists. We see him here not only being brutal to the Arabs but also showing his borderline insanity. McCollum stays with him prior to joining the group on what will be Wingate’s last night-time attack on the Arabs and notices that Wingate likes to remain naked the whole time. While this is historically accurate, I am not sure his seeing Wingate masturbating naked to a picture of the Virgin Mary is. Of course, Sharp is pointing out that both Wingate and McCollum are both Zionists and perverts. As well as Wingate, he also meets Montgomery, who is in need of religious comfort.
McCollum has his doubts. I have always found it a bit rum that Moses parcelled out land that already belonged to others, he comments but this does not seem to bother him. For him the Zionists are the true inheritors of the land and the Arabs sub-human interlopers, a view that sadly continues to this day, not least with the Israelis. McCollum has his own bit of perverted madness, before going home when his father dies. Somewhat ironically, McCollum is also pro-Nazi and feels that the Nazis have made an effort to help the Jews emigrate to Palestine from Germany. McCollum has to go home when his father dies but he does write his book. It is reviewed in the New York Times but does not have much success, as people have other things on their minds by then.
First published 2011 by Zoilus Press