Saturday, July 14, 2007

A review of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

George Edalji (that’s Ay-dal-ji, by the way, since Parsee names are always stressed on the first syllable) is the son of a Staffordshire vicar of Indian origin and his Scottish wife. George is thus a half-caste, to use the language of his late-Victorian and Edwardian age. He’s a diligent, if not too distinguished a scholar. He is uninterested in sport, is of small stature and doesn’t see too well. He sleeps with his father behind a locked door, is in bed by 9:30, becomes a small town solicitor who develops an interest in train timetables and, by way of outlandish diversion, publishes a traveller’s guide to railway law.

Arthur Conan Doyle (later Sir Arthur) is born in Edinburgh, completes medical school and generally accomplishes whatever task he sets himself, including becoming a world famous writer. Despite the fact that he kills off his creation, the detective Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly to devote time to tasks of greater gravity, popular demand insists that he raise the character from the dead. He does this and proceeds to generate even greater success than before. He marries happily twice and pursues and interest in spiritualism, amongst other good causes.

Perhaps because of who they are, the Edalji family become the butt of the campaign of poison pen letters. When they complain, all they accomplish is the focusing of further unwanted attentions on themselves. When a series of ripping attacks on animals remains unsolved, George, somehow, becomes the prime suspect. Convinced of his villainy, police, judicial system, expert witnesses, jury and press see him convicted of the crime and sent down for seven years. Good conduct sees him released after three.

Sir Arthur wishes to do good and takes up George Edalji’s case. He researches the facts, analyses the possibilities, tracks down neighbours and officials who have been involved. He creates an alternative explanation of events and presents it to officialdom, seeking a pardon and compensation for George, who by this time has transferred to London to start a new life. The two men meet and the incongruity of their assumed expectations of life are as irreconcilable as they are irrelevant to their joint focus on George’s case. After official review, however, the Home Office Committee eventually concludes in an ambiguous manner. Edalji was convicted of the crime and the conviction is declared unsound; but crucially he is not declared innocent. He is therefore found not guilty but then not innocent either and so not worthy of compensation. When, years later, Sir Arthur dies and his associates stage a spiritualist gathering in his honour in the Royal Albert Hall, George is invited and attends, complete with binoculars lest he miss a detail of the proceedings. The illusion of the event draws him in and at one stage he feels himself to be the centre of attention, only to find that it is a near miss. Most of the detail refers to himself and his father, but the reality then points to another who is immediately identified.

But, paradoxically, the quiet George Edalji and his Parsee (not Hindoo) father, Shapurji, were always the centre of attention simply by being who they were. Even Sir Arthur, the son’s eventual champion, states this in one of his letters when he writes that it was perhaps inevitable that a dark-skinned clergyman taking a station in central England would attracts other’s attention of a kind that would seek to undermine him, vilify him and attempt to oust him. The message is clear, that to be different from an assumed norm is to invite hatred, envy, discrimination and eventually ignominy. It is presented as a universal assumption, an unwritten element of universal common sense. Thus, as an intruder, the usual rules of justice will never pertain, a reality alluded to late in the book when George, scanning the Albert Memorial with his binoculars, discovers a statuesque embodiment of the concept of justice that is not wearing a blindfold.

What is eventually so disturbing about Arthur and George, however, is the realisation that both characters are outsiders. George is set apart from his Staffordshire peers by his skin colour and perceived race. Arthur, however, lives no humdrum life. He attends private schools, qualifies as a doctor and then becomes an international celebrity by virtue of his writing. He takes up minority causes and identifies with them but, despite his obvious separateness from mainstream society, in his case his position is never interpreted as a threat or a handicap, obviously because the separateness of privilege has a different currency from the separateness of even relative poverty.

Now an enduring memory of my own school history lessons was a textbook reproduction of a mid-Victorian cartoon of the universal pyramid of creation. It had God at the apex, immediately in touch via the saints with the Empress of India and then, layered beneath in widening courses were the gentry and aristocracy, the members of government and civil service, the professional classes and merchants. The working classes could perhaps temporarily ignore their poverty in the solace offered by knowing that they are a cut above members of all other races who, themselves, were just one up from the apes. It was not many more layers down to the low animals, most of which slithered or crawled. Arthur and George ostensibly tells us much about racism and racial discrimination in a society that was portrayed as the apex of a worldwide empire, a heavenly focus for aspiration. It also tells us about the power of presumption and has much to say very quietly and by suggestion about social class and its ability, especially in Britain, to legitimise difference as originality or eccentricity in some areas, differences which elsewhere would be threats.

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