The Abominable Goat by Stephen Lister is a truly odd novel, and one that arrived in my possession in a strange way.
I found it on a dusty shelf at the hotel in which my grandmother’s wake was held in the Summer and, believing the author to have been mentioned in E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book (which I’d just read) I took it with me. On looking back at the Forster now, I cannot find said reference, and in looking up Lister online there seems to be very little evidence of him existing. It is possible that this “Stephen Lister” was the “Stephen Lister” used as a nom de plume by a man called Digby George Gerahty, but the list of Digby’s books contained on Wikipedia is utterly different from the “Also by this Author” list included at the front of The Abominable Goat. Many of these books are very easy to find (secondhand) online… Mysterious, is Lister. And mysterious too is this novel, which is all about a four thousand year old goat-worshipping cult that exists the world over in the hearts and minds of olive farmers.
I struggled to work out whether or not this was fiction, to be honest, as the narrator is called Stephen and has written books with the same titles as other books by Stephen Lister. Is Lister fictional? His books certainly aren’t, which is problematic. The plot is of course a little ridiculous, being about an internationally-related, inter-linked community of olive growers who are all descended from the same people. “Olive people” treat themselves as if a race in this novel, they even seem to have their own secret language, and they (as mentioned) have their own secret religion, which is disapproved of heavily by the local Catholics in the South of France, California and Mexico, the three places where the narrator encounters olive growers.
The narrator is a stockbroker and writer, living a luxurious, international life off the back of his investments, his books and by selling occasional scripts to Hollywood. He spends a lot of time in a small town/village in Provence, called Ste Monique (which appears to be fictional) where he rashly buys a plot of olive trees, because he can. The district’s local olive baron (Achille Foucard) offers to help him look after the trees, and over time they become friends, of a sort. Foucard has a large olive farm, which has historically been run by the extended Foucard family, living a self-reliant life that hasn’t altered for centuries. The Abominable Goat is principally about the dissolution of the family as modernisation (wages, industrial farming, electricity, disposable income, free time) offers a far more appealing lifestyle to the younger generations of the family. So, I suppose, it’s a novel about changing times, about the evolution of society and about the inability for anyone to truly stand still and resist change in the twentieth century. What, I suppose, gives the novel a very ironic twist to the modern reader is that there is a lot of emphasis placed upon the fact that olive oil is becoming less popular as time goes on, and the decreased demand necessitates lower prices. Nowadays, obviously, olive oil is such a middle class staple that when I ran out of it by accident last week I almost cried.*
The writing style is alright. This Lister, whether he’s real or not, can describe beautiful locations OK, but he can’t really get down the true weirdness of olive trees, though does acknowledge this somewhat. They are odd trees, in the way that they twist and age and the way that they are pruned into their distinctive shapes.** (In Morocco, the other side of the Mediterranean, olive trees are allowed to grow huge. This is an aside.) Lister also can’t quite capture what it is that the goat worshippers believe – is there a goat god who must be appeased? Is he evil, committed to olive growth and dangerous to all who are not? Or does he protect anyone he deems worth protecting? This is ambiguous.
I suppose, though, that The Abominable Goat is an enjoyable read. It is certainly of its time (the ’70s, and by that I mean there are a few too many male-gazey descriptions of prepubescent girls), and in its unmarried, wealthy, white, British, male narrator it does have a real distance between the characters at the centre of the story and the character who watches them, doing so in between casual foreign travel, meetings in Hollywood and fine dinners cooked by his housekeeper.
This is a strange book, but one I don’t regret reading. It plays with ideas of superstition and religion, it offers a lot of ideas about old traditions, about old beliefs and about the incompatibility of most types of traditionalism with the modern age. I doubt I’ll ever read anything else by Lister, but I don’t regret giving this one a go. Intriguing, though perhaps just because it failed to answer several of its central plot points. Hmm…
* To put this in perspective, on the same day I complained for over ten minutes about the fact that the large Sainsbury in Islington doesn’t sell 500 ml bottles of San Pellegrino, preferring to only stock the far inferior Highland Spring in the “takeaway” chiller section near the door. Now that they’ve also stopped selling Viz, I may have to start exclusively shopping at the neighbouring Waitrose. I wish this was self-satire, but it’s genuinely the way I feel.
** I’m presuming that most people reading this have seen an olive tree. If not, there are several in this 2011 comedy video I made in Tuscany, which I believe is one the funniest things on the internet. The viewing figures would imply otherwise: