Chapter Five opens with Liljana hard at work in Arcadia.
“Madam hates dust.” Mrs Debono warns the young girl, and the narrator tells us that this is because it reminds Madam – Mrs. Burnett – of the fact that she is living in ‘a hot, dusty country when she would rather be at home in chilly Ipswich.’.
I have nothing against Ipswich but I can’t imagine there are many people who would prefer to live there whether it is hot or cold rather than somewhere like Malta. Dust or no, it is in the Mediterranean, by sea, and is beautiful.
That aside, the reference to dust reminded me of the Biblical passage, ‘from dust you came…’ Being a kind of Arcadia, the Villa Burnett is also a kind of living death for Liljana. For although there is good (Mrs Debono) there, death stalks it in the shape of Susan Burnett and her racist antagonism towards Liljana. This will come to its awful fulfilment later in the chapter.
On hearing of Mrs. Burnett’s antipathy towards dust, Liljana retorts that she should not have come to live in Malta. On the face of it this sounds quite reasonable; however, to be fair to her, it is not likely that she was ever given a choice.
This realisation helps us to understand why Mrs. Burnett is so antagonistic towards Liljana. And, actually, it is probably not her personally that Mrs. Burnett hates but with what Liljana represents – hot, dusty Malta. Sadly, as the narrator points out, Liljana is too young to realise this, although it is not really down to her to connect the dots. That is Mrs. Burnett’s responsibility and her failure to do so is a great failing on her part. At least, though, being in receipt of this knowledge we can pity her even if just a little bit – and for a short while.
Liljana’s retort earns her an admonishing slap from Mrs. Debono as she has inadvertently made a political statement. A little later on, politics seems to come into the story again when one of Mrs. Burnett’s female guests is called a ‘white stocking’. This allusion is not explained. I googled it but only found references to a book by D. H. Lawrence. As I was in a public place I thought I better stop right there. From its context within the story, however, I assume it means that her friend is a suffragette.
Liljana experiences the better side of Arcadia when she starts surreptitiously reading the books in Mr. Burnett’s library. When he catches her he ‘punishes’ her by giving her a copy of the newly published Railway Children to read. Unfortunately, this leads to Arcadia’s worse side, and death.
Mrs. Burnett finds the book (after poking around Liljana’s bedroom intent on finding something, anything, to use against her). In a most dramatic scene, she accuses Liljana of stealing it. There is silence, words, a slap; incredibly, and if truth be told, rather surreally, Mrs. Burnett has Liljana arrested. Does the pity end here? No, we must resist the temptation to turn against Mrs. Burnett. The fact is, like Liljana, like Kristjana, she is damaged. Much more so than them, which means, surely, that we should pity her all the more.
I have purposefully missed out one part of the confrontation between woman and girl so that I can mention it here. After being accused of theft, Liljana tries to defend herself by explaining that Mr. Burnett gave her the book. It doesn’t wash. Nothing ever will; as far as Mrs. Burnett is concerned, Liljana is not so much dirty as the personification of dirt. She continues to verbally abuse her until Liljana can take no more. She fights back with the only weapon she has – spit.
It’s amazing how such a simple action can have do much meaning. And not just then. Today, there is no more contemptible sight as when a footballer (for I have only seen it happen in that sport) spits at another. Thankfully, the occurrence is rare.
After the spit, the narrative becomes very confused – reflecting Liljana’s confusion as she is bundled out of the Burnett’s’ house and taken away to the police station. It is a really intense and engrossing end to the chapter.
If I have one criticism to make, it is that Mrs. Burnett is a very one dimensional villain. Yes, de Maria gives us a vital insight into her character but all of her scenes are so fraught with threat, contempt and violence that the observation is nearly drowned by it all. I am assuming that Chapter Six will see Liljana take her leave of the Burnetts and begin the next stage of her life in England. If so, it is a shame she could not stay longer so that we might see more of Mrs. Burnett and, hopefully, comes to a deeper understanding of why she is so nasty. With that said, I recognise that not only is she not the main character in this story, but she is a junior member of the support cast. We have the de Maria’s insight. That will have to be enough.