‘AN INDISCREET JOURNEY’
This story is puzzling because the central concerns of the story – as we’d normally think of them - are expressed as hints. It’s not quite clear at the outset where she’s going or why. It’s not clear at first that the ‘little corporal’ is more than a helper, but in fact her lover and why she’s come (perhaps). Each time the lovers are alone there is a film-like cut with asterisks so the very intimacy which drives the story (so we might expect) is kept from us. Once she has arrived at the grail-like white room, that’s not the end of the story, though we might expect that. But the story goes on into the café, conversations with the soldiers, the risky trip to the café which sells Mirabelle. And ends with success in the quest for that drink.
Only in retrospect can we map out some sort of story structure. The state of equilibrium is not being in the war zone. The problem is how to get into the war zone. The actions are the journey on train and coach to the white room. Here there are secondary problems where she is threatened with failure by officials at the quay, the station, the second café. The resolution seems to be getting Mirabelle. But is it?
What is Mansfield doing, not just with narrative structure, by by it. Perhaps the real purpose is not to see and make love to the Little Corporal. Perhaps the real purpose is the story framework itself, the idea of an adventure, the texture of the adventure with its fascinating characters along the way – the woman reading her letter, the suspicious woman with a seagull in her hat, the malicious café owner, the helpful serving boy, the warm hearted soldiers, the wounded one, the little corporal himself simply as a ‘helper’ in the adventure. Is the main character simply giving herself a thrill at the expense of all these people?
As a group they get the non-English Mirabelle, so much better than whisky. It is so satisfying the second time you sip it. The end of the story is the pleasure of an essentially French intoxication. Are we too feel the war behind this, the simple enjoyment of men who may be about to be killed? Or is it a sexual metaphor? Or, bearing in mind the puzzling St Anne at the opening, is it a Christian symbol, the plum being a traditional symbol of fidelity.
Or is Mansfield playing with our received ideas of the self. We think of ourselves as making a journey, rather than the journey as taking and making us. The journey and the surrounding are more ‘real’ than the traveller, perhaps.
Or is there a coldness at the bottom of all this, as in ‘Je ne Parle pas Français’. The author is nothing but an observer. His or her ‘love’ is not for the people but the story.