Ninety-per-cent of William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ is told from a Neanderthal point of view, that is a literal not a figurative Neanderthal, as imagined by the author, but this novel is really about us, Homo Sapiens. Golding’s general estimation of ‘Wise Guy’ in this follow-up to his first publication, the hugely successful ‘Lord of the Flies’, seems not to have improved. His little band, who are not like Neanderthals actually would have been―hardly behind us with their own tools and culture, and of course now we know that ancestral Europeans even enjoyed some Neanderthal nookie―are a sort of sub-human ape, with basic communication skills and limited sense of a past tense. But the qualities Golding has endowed on this tribe, presumably the last of its kind, are a sort of inverse to the things he doesn’t like about us, and maybe himself.
Golding served throughout World War Two so his ‘vision’ in ‘Lord of the Flies’, of a group of ‘civilised’ boys degenerating into savagery in a post-atomic-holocaust world, seems an unsurprising formulation from what he had suffered and witnessed: culturally and technically sophisticated nation states indulging in a barbaric blood-bath, the second within a few decades. And he, by necessity, an active agent in that.
Whereas his Neanderthals are peaceful and caring, largely vegetarian―they only eat meat killed by others―communicating in telepathic ‘pictures’, with few words, as though the development of language itself might be a curse, a slightly odd view for a writer. Family bonding is the most important thing in their lives, therefore they worship a female God, ‘Oa’, as the original source of family. They respect and learn from their elders, they revere their dead. They’re far too nice, and so you know, as a consequence, doomed to be wiped out, by us.
Without any spoilers I can confidently leave readers to imagine what inevitably occurs when a tribe of Homo Sapiens wanders into their territory. And here Golding provides some brilliant observations of just how strange we, as a race, might appear to others. Notably, it is our decadence, our sense of sin, that most sets us apart from the primal innocents spying through the foliage. We drink and fight and kill and fornicate without really giving a damn, all quite beyond Neanderthal comprehension. Look through these eyes and see what evolution has finally produced, says Golding, this plague on the natural earth. Probably just as well he himself died before being party to the present accelerating outrages to our planet and its denizens.
I increasingly found this book hard going. Golding is not a ‘kill your darlings’ writer, certainly not here anyway, with his endlessly languid descriptions of the natural landscape that have little connection to plot and motive and unnecessarily clog up the narrative. Also point-of-view is mostly through the alpha male, Lok, who is not very bright, even for a monkey. Lok spends a lot of page time describing the goings-on of the new men in detached observations that are difficult for the reader to piece together. He doesn’t understand much of what they’re doing, so neither can we, and this quickly becomes boring.
Also, in some defence of our kind, the ceremonial bacchanals/orgies observed by Lok and his consort Fa perversely show the beginnings of religion and culture. There is a somewhat wayward but nevertheless continuous line from a hopped-up shaman prancing around in a deer-hide to, say, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or even the great tradition of English prose which includes a small distinguished niche for Mr. William Golding. It hasn’t been all bad.
Jeremiahs, even powerful ones, sour quickly. Say your piece and leave your audience reeling. This is not a long book, but still, I feel the important messages are dulled by Golding’s writerly ambitions. A fascinating overall concept, and brilliant and powerful in parts, ‘The Inheritors’ turns into one of those ‘worthy’ novels, definitely worth reading, but you’ll be hanging out for the end. The end, admittedly, is very good.