Nutshell: racism temporarily defeated by means of more or less permanent sexism.
Novel promises to be an exercise in inverting baudrillardian dissimulation: “The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guests” (3). That this is a colonialist’s perspective of colonized space in British India should not be irrelevant, and we might accordingly regard colonized India as a (dis?)simulacrum, a copy that has replaced the original, but instead of propounded presence, the copy constitutes a propounded absence. Viewed from “the little civil station,” the setting “appears to be a totally different place” (4).
A bit heavy-handed at times, such as in declaring that the roads “named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles, were symbolic of the net Great Britain had thrown over India” (13). It is nonetheless a matter of imposing progressive market relations, wherein the railway can be said to be “pushing its burning throat over the plain, and the twentieth century took over the sixteenth” (178). It is therefore very much the description found in [b:Late Victorian Holocausts|7859|Late Victorian Holocausts El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World|Mike Davis|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1352512855s/7859.jpg|10888].
Discourse is littered with uglies such as: “he agreed that all Englishwomen are haughty and venal” (9); “That is why India is in such a plight, because we put off things” (11); “‘I don’t think I understand people very well. I only know whether I like or dislike them.’ ‘Then you are an Oriental’” (21); “He felt disloyal to his caste” (33); “You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on equality” (42); and so on. This stuff is entirely the point, of course--the confrontation of irreconcilables, which is not to suggest that the truth is in the middle between them. Far from it: for all the annoying pre-modern ideology on the native side, one can hardly sympathize with the colonialist.
Probably a good idea to approach this with a firm grounding in the history of the British Raj, which I lack. But we might rest assured that the relation is thoroughly dialectical: “You can make India in England apparently, just as you can make England in India” (78). Indeed, “the East had returned to the East via the suburbs of London, and had become ridiculous during the detour” (110)--not merely first as tragedy, second as farce, but also the colonialist’s hyperreal copy, more real than the original, for “this city is full of misstatements” (117), which fictions should be regarded as originary. The setting arises after the Sepoy Mutiny, after Davis’ late Victorian holocausts, after World War I--a parade of horrible that should not be underestimated, as the English had already hit “the unspeakable limit of cynicism, untouched since 1857“ (207). The events of the novel are therefore comparatively small, but prescient, considering later historical developments.
Lovely chapter X (123-24), regarding how “it matters so little to the majority of living beings what the minority, that calls itself human, desires or decides.” It’s likely retrograde, pastoralist, anti-modern--but it reads well.
Major confrontation of the novel, supra, is the trial of a native who is accused of sexually assaulting a colonialist. The reaction is nothing if not predictable: “Nothing enraged Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed” (183). We are solemnly informed that “all unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30” (184). The casual racism of the colonialist characters is highlighted by the narrative, held out for our judgment as errors, rather than ontologies of the setting itself. They are accordingly subject to disputation and defeat, and, though the narrative defeats them at a trial which places the prosecutrix literally on a pedestal in court (243), that defeat is engineered through the recantation of the alleged victim: “‘You withdraw the charge? Answer me,’ shrieked the representative of Justice. Something she did not understand took hold of the girl and pulled her through. Though the vision was over, and she had returned to the insipidity of the world, she remembered what she had learnt. Atonement and confession--they could wait. It was in hard prosaic tones that she said, ‘I withdraw everything’” (256). This hits as hard as Max Schell’s terrible, terribly effective cross-examination of Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg
, which is mercifully for all interrupted by Lancaster's peremptory ejaculation, but it likewise reads now as the standard MRA bullshit that there’s greater risk of harm in false rape accusations than in rape itself. The racist stuff is generally presented as partisan contention, the ideology of characters, whereas as the false rape accusation, which the racist contenders recapture with the proposition that she “had renounced her own people” (257), is an ontological fact of the setting. We may therefore regard it as affixed into setting permanency, sexism inscribed into the world, though at least racism endures a temporary defeat, even though racist characters persist.
Contention between defendant and his chief British friend dominates the falling action thereafter, concluding with perhaps the most affective ending that I’ve read (aside from the last lines of [b:Paradise Lost|15997|Paradise Lost|John Milton|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309202847s/15997.jpg|1031493] naturally!): “’Why can’t we be friends now?’ said the other, holding him affectionately. ‘It’s what I want. It’s what you want.’ But the horses didn’t want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there’” (362).
Recommended for those feeling that the English are a comic institution, readers endowed with two memories, a temporary and a permanent, and persons who turn to the East, but return to the West.