viernes, 17 de febrero de 2012

The Day of The Scorpion by Paul Scott

Just as history can’t be undone, innocence, once lost, can’t be retrieved. If history would allow, I would dearly love to read Paul Scott’s The Day Of The Scorpion without having first read The Jewel In The Crown. Scorpion is very much a continuation of the Crown and I am not convinced that a reader coming cold to the book as a stand-alone work would cope with the multiple references to what came before. Like the characters in Paul Scott’s novels, I can’t undo history and can only thus reflect on another time through this forensic tale of war-torn colonial India as someone who did the Crown first.

The incidents that formed the backbone of The Jewel In The Crown are still to the fore. There are implications and consequences. But time and people have moved on. Not all have survived. There is a child called Parvati who figures large in the tale but hardly ever appears. Ronald Merrick, however, the policeman from Mayapore who was only seen from afar and through others’ eyes in The Jewel In The Crown is now very much at the centre of things. His character, that of a self-made man, grammar school educated, middle, not upper class, provides the perfect contrast to the stiff upper lip fossilized Britishness of the military types. Merrick is no less British, no less confident in his prejudices. In fact he is arguably more aggressive in his need to assert a removed superiority, but his need is personal and antagonistic, containing neither the patronising nor the paternalistic tendencies of those born to rule. Racially he assumes superiority, whereas professionally he must earn it, because, unlike the upper classes, he was not born to it.

The Laytons are such an upper class colonial family. Daddy is a prisoner of war in Europe. Mildred is at home in India – if home it can be – silently stewing at the indignity of not being able to live in the larger house her status deserves. She has taken to the bottle. Susan, the younger daughter, is about to be married to a suitably stationed officer and, despite war, civil unrest, threats of political change in Britain and now fragile colonialism, expects a fairytale family future plucked straight from the pages of some glossy magazine. Sarah, her sister, is more down to earth, is perhaps both more phlegmatic and sceptical, certainly more conscious of her responsibilities and role and the fragility of life.

Both sisters remember a childhood experience when a gardener made a ring of fire and dropped a live scorpion into its midst. Thus surrounded by threat, it did for itself, or at least that’s how it looked. How would people react if conflagration surrounded them? They would have to get on with their lives, of course. But for some, the process might prove tougher than for others.

And what if you are a local ruler, a Nawab, for instance, a British puppet popping around a little kingdom claiming it’s a law unto itself? What to do if your chief minister has been imprisoned by your masters without trial, along with all others who share his opposition to the people who keep you in power? Where then should your loyalties lie?

Though The Day Of The Scorpion is primarily a novel about women, it’s the military side of the book that provides everyone involved with the ring of challenges they must face. With politicians in jail and Mr Ghandi’s advocacy of non-violence, how does anyone relate to those Indians who have joined the Indian National Army to fight alongside the Japanese? If your mindset has been tutored on notions of paternalism and the white man’s burden, how is possible that such people can exist? How can they reject what you have offered? But exist they do and their ammunition is live. And it’s not only the British who cannot cope with such concepts.

The Day Of The Scorpion has many more themes than these. It is an episodic novel of quite remarkable complexity. The characters are beautifully drawn, rounded individuals, each presented with personal, social and political dilemmas. Not least among them is Hari Kumar, still imprisoned, whose loyalty is repeatedly tested, and whose resolve to protect remains unbreakable.

Paul Scott’s novel recreates a complete world, a complete history via the experiences of individuals who, given the chance, are more than willing to explain their positions and dilemmas at length. But it is the detail of their stories that describes the pressures that now surround them. You cannot skip a word.

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