The Lost Chart

Neil Gunn, one of Scotland's most distinguished novelists of the 20th Century, was a prolific writer. His first novel, The Grey Coast, appeared in 1926 and his last, The Other Landscape, in 1954. This long period of creative writing spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1930's, the Second World War and what came to be known as 'The Cold War'. Although nearly all of his novels are set and enacted in the Highlands of Scotland, he can never be described as a regional novelist in the narrowest sense of that description. His novels, reflecting his constant philosophical quests, invariably depict two worlds - the world of here and now and the world in which the meaning of life and the esSence of living are explored. In 1943 he wrote his famous antiutopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep, a rural equivalent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, which appeared six years later. Some of the themes explored by Gunn in that profound and optimistic work are reflected in The Lost Chart, a novel he wrote at the beginning of the Cold War.

Unlike most of Gunn's novels, The Lost Chart is set in a city - the city of Glasgow, and its sea approaches. The untypical choice of background for the story is not the only departure from Gunn's normal approach to his novels. The book itself is also a thriller. The story as it unfolds is pervaded by the effects of sinister and clandestine activities connected with the Cold War. In terms of the work of such novelists as Le Cane and Ian Fleming, the book can be described as a Cold War novel of suspense, but it is a thriller with a difference.

The Lost Chart moves on two distinct planes - that of espionage and violence and that of what lies behind the conflict provoked by the clash of values and political ambitions of the Cold War. Shipping Executive Dermot Cameron gets involved in a street brawl, loses the chart of the approaches to a remote Hebridean island of strategic importance and finds himself in the midst of tussle between the British Secret Service and a locally based communist fifth-column. The plot turns almost obsessively on the date of a looming crisis, and the imminence of that date pervades the thoughts and feelings of those in conflict with the fifth-column, and suggests a return to the dark ages.

For Dermot Cameron, the desperate hunt for the lost chart is to find not only a sensitive document of military importance but also a mental chart for his own spiritual and practical well-being. Life on the remote Hebridean island, with which he had been familiar in naval service during the War, and to which the lost chart pertains, is seen by Cameron as a pointer to keep the latter search in the right direction. In the novel the two searches co-exist and bring Cameron into contact with different types of people. There is the girl from the island in question, Christina, the artist Joe, and the singer of Gaelic songs, Ellen-all of whom represent a life enhancing force in their attitudes to life. Each offers an element of hope-Christina, in her natural and unspoilt
relationship with the everyday world, Joe, in his search for light through his art, and Ellen, in the beauty and wonder of a Celtic civilization through her Gaelic songs. In stark contrast to these people of goodwill, there is the sinister Basil, a fellow member of Cameron's Glasgow club, who presents himself as Cameron's main antagonist. Basil has a view of life that is ultra-rational, materialistic and destructive -epithets that hint of a possible acceptance of totalitarianism in all its unpleasant forms. Basil's cold reasoning makes Cameron appreciate the value of such people as Christina, Joe and Ellen. He sees them as the true image-makers in a world seeking imaginative renewal. This search is not seen by him as a form of escapism or regression. In a conversation with Cameron, Joe encapsulates this view when he says,

Throughout the exciting story Cameron goes to great lengths to mask his temporary connections with the Secret Service, particularly to avoid any involvement, direct or indirect, on the part of his friends. This reflects a certain uneasiness within Cameron himself over his role for the Secret Service. He simply does not wish to be involved in the power and security game, as any involvement seems to him a diversion from his search for his own metaphysical lost chart. This extra dimension suffuses a plot that thrills by its intricacies, and by its creation of an intense awareness of a race against time.

The book has a strange relevance to the events of today. When it was written, the possibility of economic recession and the decline in established moral and spiritual beliefs were symptoms of an uneasiness in the West with regard to the preservation of the 'old order'. Today the fears are still with us, aggravated to an unusual extent by the serious threat posed by international terrorism. In the light of these fears and concerns, Neil Gunn's novel, The Lost Chart, is an invitation to participate, in the most exciting of circumstances, in the search for something of value for humanity that has been temporarily or irretrievably lost.

Dairmid Gunn