If you turn to page 20 of PULSE 2, the Form One and Form Two English textbook, you will come across a task aimed at collecting students’ opinion about a book they enjoyed reading. Each student is required to recall and make notes about their favorite book: title, author, kind of book, age when they read it and why they liked it. From this activity, students learn some vocabulary items and structures related to facts and fictions. Besides, they get to share their ideas, likes, dislikes and personal preferences with their peers as a class. Most importantly, they come to a realization, probably indirectly that books open the minds and expand ones’ imagination as well as creativity.
As for me, a book I enjoyed reading is ‘The Pearl’, a novella by the American author and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, John Steinbeck. The story is based on a Mexican folk tale which Steinbeck had heard in his visit to La Paz in 1940. This capital city of Baja California Sur on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico was a formally pearl-rich region. There, Steinbeck witnessed boats docked in the bay and along the shores to send divers digging for oysters. Kino, the main character of ‘The Pearl’ earns his living by gathering fortune from the Gulf beds. He is a free pearl diver as he has a canoe of his own, which he inherited from his father. The canoe was once his grandfather’s property and source of food, ‘for a man with a boat can guarantee a woman that she will eat something (page 14)’.
Kino’s wife, Juana is a housewife and she takes good care of her husband and their infant son, Coyotito. The story begins with a sweet melody of the Song of the Family. Before long, however, the tune was replaced by the Song of Evil, the song of the enemy. The young parents were terrified. A scorpion was moving delicately down the rope toward the box where their child was lying. Kino tried to catch it, ‘but it fell past his fingers, fell on the baby’s shoulder, landed and struck’. To make things worse, the doctor in town refused to treat the little patient - he only took care of those who lived in the stone and plaster houses!
So, the couple took their first-born to the sea, hoping for a miracle from the oyster bed. Then, the baby could be cured. Juana was making the magic of prayer. The family needed the luck and Kino heard the Song of the Pearl That Might Be. He worked deliberately before he saw a very large oyster. Its shell was partly open, and the young diver noticed a ghostly gleam before it closed down. Slowly, he forced the oyster loose and rose to the surface. In his canoe, he opened the shell and there it lay, the greatest pearl in the world, as large as a sea-gull’s egg, perfect as the moon. Kino could see dream forms in the surface of the great pearl!
The image of Kino holding his new found treasure in his palm and howled in his canoe is still vivid in my mind though I first read the book nearly two decades ago. The story has once been used in Malaysian high school classes. It was one of the texts Form Five students had to read, comprehend and later answer a question about it in an important public examination. In the process of guiding and supporting the young minds into getting the most marks out of this particular task, I was reading and re-reading the book for countless times. Well, I must admit that it was a commitment initially and the first reading was mostly for academic purposes. However, at some points, I believe, I was enjoying the story, the content, the language and social issues raised by the author.
One interesting feature of the literary text is the use of music to describe feelings and emotions of the protagonist. There is the Song of the Family which is clear and soft. The Song of Evil, on the contrary, is the music of any foe of the family. When this dangerous melody came to Kino, the Song of the Family cried plaintively. Plus, there are the Song of the Undersea and the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, when divers remain down, searching and selecting the largest shells. Perhaps readers could ‘hear’ the music, of different chords, but they share the same feelings as Kino. At times, they are happy for him; almost always, they keep their fingers closed for the young father and his small family.
When Kino went out to the sea after being refused treatment by the doctor, his desire to find a pearl was pure. Baby Coyotito’s wound must be cured and the only chance was to hire a healthcare personnel. Like their neighbours and the village folks, Kino and Juana were poor, uneducated and ignorant of modern medicine, facts and awareness in general. All they knew about a scorpion sting was that it could kill. Hence, the great pearl was Kino’s aspiration to heal his child, improve life and above all, to send the boy to school. “My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and will know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know – he will know and through him we will know.” Kino was fully aware of the need for his people to KNOW, to acquire knowledge, especially that of formal education. With literacy and competence, they would be free from ignorance and poverty.
Kino’s dreams were acceptable and reasonable. The pearl was his, he took it from the oyster bed. Yet, intruders and robbers tried to seize the gem, pretenders and conmen cheated and tricked him. Juana was worried. “This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us,” she told her husband. But Kino was adamant to keep it. “Our son must go to school. He must break the pot that holds us in.” So, in the midst of keeping the pearl and hoping to sell it at a price of his expectation in the capital city, Kino had to deal with challenges and obstacles which he had never imagined in his life.
The ending of the story is tragic. The issues are clear. Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’ is indeed a good read!