jueves, 8 de marzo de 2012

A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott

Start with two major religions, Islam and Hinduism. To a history of one ruling the other, add the complication of a determinedly, in part evangelical Christian colonial administration that lords it over both and in recent memory has massacred innocents. Calls for independence are frequent, but the detail of “from what” remains negotiable. There is civil disobedience in a state whose imperial government can only function by virtue of local cooperation. But should independence lead to a unitary state, religiously mixed, or should it divide along ethnic lines in an attempt to avoid conflict of interest?

Then there’s a World War against an invading Japanese army to be coped with. And when a new kind of independence is called for, one that not only politically rejects the colonial masters but also wages war against them, new complications emerge. Those who deserted to fight alongside the enemy risk courts-martial and death sentences for treason, despite their being viewed locally as freedom fighters by those who desire independence at any cost, whilst remaining traitors in the eyes of anyone seeking any form of accommodation with the status quo.

This is India in the 1940s, and as yet there has been no mention yet of the princely states, each with its Nawab or Maharajah at its head, ostensibly independent but land-locked in their geographical and political dependency, surrounded by colonialism that, if anything, has nurtured them. Which way would these august gentlemen lean?

A Division Of The Spoils by Paul Scott is the last novel in his Raj Quartet. It is set against this backdrop of complex social, political, military, even geo-political considerations, all of which interact and thus influence one another. The novel’s story features a group of British colonials, perhaps locked in time, adherents of assumptions that no longer apply, who have to cope not only with all the complications of war and changing India, but also of their own lives, their forcibly limited aspirations and their enforced change of identity.

A Division Of The Spoils is such a vast project that a reader might suspect that the pace might flag somewhere within its six hundred or so pages. The reader would be wrong. By shifting the focus from one character to another, by changing the narrative’s point of view, the book not only enthrals from first to last, it also brings to life the dilemmas that face these people, often tragically, but never without compassion or empathy.

Paul Scott has not written a novel that reaches, or even tries to offer solutions or analyses. The only end products are history, itself, and the deaths of some of the characters, whom, when deceased, we realise we may not have known very well at any time. Perhaps they themselves did not really know who they were, why they were playing the role of the ruler, acting out superiority whenever a suitable minion or perhaps target might be identified. They might have been sure what disgusted them, but they were never sure of their own motives, or their motivations, even when these ran to an overtly paternalistic, perhaps patronising attitude towards the ruled.

Yet, through all the confusion of politics, war and change, people must live their lives. Hopefully, they are the subjects of this change because, if they are its objects, they are in danger. Just ask Ahmed Kasim, who was never very political, or even very Islamic. Ask Susan Layton, then Bingham, then Merrick. Ask those who stay on or those who leave, those who sign away their independence and power, or those who manipulate events to their advantage. And finally, if you ask me, I would conclude that The Division Of The Spoils, and the Raj Quartet as a whole, represent an achievement in writing through the medium of fiction that has certainly never been surpassed. When piles appear, look for this one at the top.

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