(First published 1947)
I read this novella in two post-dinner sittings over a single Gran Habano divided by two.
A parable of human greed – that’s how I have seen it described, and this phrase fits the story to a tee.
A native Indian, a worker in the pearling trade in a small Mexican town, dives into the river In search of a pearl to pay for his son’s treatment, and accidentally finds the “Pearl of the World” – a large, round, shining beauty no one has ever seen before – and thinking he’s found a treasure that would buy him not only his son’s treatment from a spider’s poisonous sting but also his future, he revels in his glorious find and proceeds to sell the item to convert it into money.
Soon the family finds itself in the clutches of evil when the greedy of the town try to steal the prized possession from him, attack him and hurt him, and may attack his wife and his son. Ironically, the pearl which was a promise of a happy and rich future becomes a raison d’être for a series of unending misfortunes which consists of an attack of attempted murder, of burning down of his brush shack, and of the family leaving the town incognito to save their lives from the human vultures vying to steal the pearl from them.
All the while, his wife begs and implores the man to divest the pearl from his possessions but it has become an ego problem for him. He is so much blinded by the luminous dreams of a great future as not to see that that future would never dawn on their household because they do not even know if they will survive the vagaries of the circumstance the found pearl has put them in.
In its bared state, it is a simple, straightforward story. However, the characterisation of the native Indian population offers insight.
They know the cunning and dishonesty of the rich white man, in turn his imperial greed and rapacity, yet the natives have failed to devise an appropriate response to their centuries-long subjugation and their status of an inferior race which, in the eyes of the white masters, is only a shade above that of wild animals. This is illustrated when, knowing he’d be cheated, the whole tribe knowing that he’d be cheated, he still goes to the same cartel of pearl buyers who collude to keep the prices down, then buy pearls from the local divers and sell them for high profits in the pearl market of the capital.
This is offset by the man’s steely resolve to leave the town, if he must, to sell the pearl for its appropriate price. And thus he becomes a proverbial pioneer amongst his people to break the chains that bind them to their piece of land, advised against by his brother in words that convey the the threat of unknown that lies beyond the road, the madness of the capital and all that exists beyond their shore of the Gulf.
There is an unmistakeable echo of the lyrical prose of Hemingway in Steinbeck’s storytelling. I have not read much of both of them to say that definitively but, let’s say tentatively, the dream-like sense of this novella has a good deal in common with the musicality of “The Old Man and the Sea.”, a novella of Hemingway.
The cinematic scope of Steinbeck’s folkloric novella is vast and rich as if you are watching the actual scenes from the primordial landscape being played out in front of you in words, which is how I felt as I read along, not least because its first draft was originally intended to be filmed.
By my grading it should get 4/5.