Murdo by Iain Crichton Smith, 1981
by Iain Crichton Smith, 1981
Iain Crichton Smith, one of Scotland's foremost poets and writers, published numerous volumes of poetry in both Gaelic (his native language) and English, as well as novels and short stories. The poet frequently elbowed the prose writer in his lyrical descriptions of character and landscape.
Murdo Macrae, the eponymous hero of "Murdo," the title story of Smith's collection published in 1981, was a bank clerk until, to the consternation of his wife, Janet, and her stolid family, he resigns from his post to become a writer. Janet's father, "the quintessence of normality," to whom Murdo leaves a stone in his will, cannot understand such a man. Murdo's claim to a position of conventionality and conformity is a flair for figures and the stereotypical appearance of a bank clerk—thin and pale faced. As a boy he was capable of remarkable calculations, to the astonishment of the headmaster.
The story is a study in alienation and of increasingly exuberant behavior that borders on a total mental breakdown. Physical and mental exuberance of any kind, however, are quite beyond the comprehension of Janet and her family, who have little understanding of Murdo, as he is perplexed by his wife's zeal for tidiness and the precise positioning of the furniture and ornaments in their home.
The white snow-covered mountain, at which Murdo is forever gazing, dominates his thoughts and aspirations and seems to represent an unattainable ideal. He longs to leave the imprint of his footsteps in its virgin snow, an ambition that he does not achieve any more than his ambition to be a writer. The sheet of paper before him remains as unsullied as the mountain's snow. He is always "trying" to write but never actually writes anything.
There are indications in Murdo's earlier behavior that he would always be an original, if not a buffoon. For instance, he wears a cabbage leaf in his buttonhole on his wedding day. Told to write an essay entitled "My Home," he describes it as "a place where there are large green forests, men with wings, aeroplanes made of diamonds, and rainbow-coloured stairs." The exercise earned him "two strokes of the belt."
Janet considers him to be a philosopher, but she feels that she has an unnatural person living with her—an understatement if ever there was one in view of his subsequent behavior.
His increasingly bizarre antics embrace much that is basic childish humor. He wears a red rubber nose when collecting newspapers and renders deeply nervous a female bystander whom he accosts and subjects to a stream of inane repetitive remarks about the weather. On his way home he spreads out the newspaper on a large piece of ice and lays an old boot, found in a nearby ditch, on top of it so that passersby could read the headline ("I still love him though he killed for me"). Smith's ironic sense of humor shows in Murdo's description of the Daily Record: "those sublime pages that tell us about the murders that have been committed in caravans in the south."
Murdo's obsessions deepen—the colors yellow and green dominate his mind. Drunk in the moonlight, he shouts to the stars: "Lewis" (Smith's native island); "Skye" (another Scottish island); "Betelgeuse," which he accuses of putting skin on his bones and a worm in his head. He suffers from headaches, surely implicit indications of severe mental disturbance.
The joker in Murdo performs absurd acts; he writes to Dante inquiring how and when the poet first began writing and encloses a stamp for the reply. He thinks everyone needs a friend, he tells Dante, an indication perhaps of his awareness that no one understands him and that he has no true kindred spirit. He advertises for a man between 100 and 102, with a knowledge of Kant, who would work on the roads for three weeks in the year. He asks for nonexistent books in the library and thinks how much easier the librarian's life would be were the shelves lined with "nonexistent, unwritten books." He makes up words like "blowdy" to describe "the kind of marbly clouds that you sometimes see in the sky on a windy day."
The happy, carefree, childlike vision of much of Smith's earlier prose now gives way to the horrendous qualities of a child's nightmare. To Murdo the sun appears like blood across the white mountain, and in his own nightmares the witch carries a cup of blood like a cup of tea. Hideousness and normality are now comingled in his mind.
Perhaps the most significant explanation of Murdo's psyche lies in his unpublished letter to his local newspaper, Is Calvin Still Alive? The religion of the Free Kirk (the epithet could be considered a misnomer) and its strict adherence to the observance of the Scottish Sabbath are still practiced in the Western Isles of Scotland, though less ardently than in previous days. Smith was brought up on the Island of Lewis, where in certain quarters the adherents of that faith can still envisage physical hellfire, a kind of literalness that can in normal circumstances stimulate a rigid observance of daily duties but could easily lure an imaginative child into apocryphal forebodings and fancies, such as Murdo experiences.
The jerky, episodic nature of the story resolves ultimately into a quietly melancholic ending as Murdo watches his father dying. He demands bitterly, "What did he get out of life? What did he get?" He cannot answer, but he knows what he has to do—"write a story about his father … and if he couldn't defeat the mountain, he knew also what he would do." Smith has posed the age-old questions in this strangely haunting story.