Friday, February 24, 2012

The Towers Of Silence by Paul Scott

The Towers Of Silence, the third of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, is very much a novel about women. Set in India in the 1940s, the war impinges on almost every aspect of their lives, but they experience conflict largely second hand via the consequences for their male associates. Their lives are changed because those of their men folk have been affected. But it is the internal conflicts, as these women strive to maintain normality within the abnormal, that provide the book with its real substance, its real battleground.

And these are no mere domestic fronts. There are conflicts of interest, prejudices, especially in the realm of social class and ascribed worth, that shed real blood. Here are just a few of the women involved. Mildred Layton and her two daughters, the long-suffering Sarah and simpler Susan, have John, husband and father, detained as a prisoner of war in Europe. Susan’s new husband, the rather dull and inexperienced Teddy, has been killed in action on the Burma front. She bears his child, tentatively and premature.

There’s Mabel, Mildred’s rather off-beat step-mother-in-law who occupies Rose Cottage, the well appointed residence that really would be put to better use if it housed the rest of the family, allowing them to vacate the less-than-adequate, if not actually demeaning government issue where they currently reside.

And then there’s Barbie Batchelor, Mabel’s housemate of some years. She’s an ex-missionary, a teacher of young children, parlour maid class, of course, now put out to the pasture of retirement, pasture that just happens to be the laws of the favoured and evied Rose Cottage.

From the previous two books in the quartet, the two Manners characters, Daphne, who was abused in the 1942 Mayapore civil unrest, and her aunt, Lady Manners, still figure large in events. The fall-out for the now ex-policeman, Ronald Merrick, still troubles, pursues him, in fact. Daphne died in childbirth, so he believes the case died with her. No-one else seems to think so. Intriguingly the surviving child is also a girl.

But it is Barbie who emerges a the book’s focus. Her friend and colleague, Edwina Crane, opened the sequence of novels. She was also attached in the 1942 riots, and then later she committed suttee, her mind allegedly disturbed by what had happened. It was an act that Barbie could not and still can not understand, provoking her to question whether her life devoted to bringing Indian children to God might just have been mis-spent. Sarah Layton will still talk to her, but Mildred hates her. And so when… 

 But then this is all plot, and the reader wants this to unfold anew from the book, itself. Let it be said that the characters of The Towers Of Silence interact in remarkably complex ways. But what is actually said is only ever a small part of a much bigger story. It was Lawrence Durrell who described the English having a hard and horny outer shell, but soft at centre, exploring the world via sensitive antennae called humour and prejudice. And this description fits the way in which the colonial British in India have become a caricature of a society that no longer exists in the home country.

Change is inevitable, and when it comes it is likely that those left rootless by it will be laid out on a tower of silence, the place where Parsees leave their dead to be picked to bones by raptors, where all the fleshed-out airs and graces of class will fall away. Paul Scott’s novel is sensitive, but analytical enough to have a vicious streak. It is full of rumours and, of course, prejudice, especially in the way that its characters deal with anyone suspected of having lower social status than themselves. And if you are a colonial British in India, that’s just about everyone, despite the lack of obvious future that the way of life might claim.

Monday, February 20, 2012

From Cairo to Cape Town - A Home To Head For by Eric Olverson

A Home To Head For is something of a marathon, not for the reader, but for the author, Eric Olverson. To be accurate, Eric’s tale is significantly more than a literal marathon, about twelve thousand kilometres more, in fact, because Eric’s tale describes how he cycled the length of Africa.

Tour d’Afrique (TDA for short) is an outfit that assists those wanting to cycle a long way – a very long way. Starting in Cairo, Egypt, their route heads south via Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia before reaching its destination of Cape Town in South Africa. Eric Olverson’s handlebar-mounted computer recorded a distance of 12,009 kilometres – including a detour or lost route or two along the way – which, in any language or circumstance, is a long way. It’s even further when much of it is across desert, or on dirt roads strewn with stones and pocked with potholes. In Eric’s case, the achievement goes way beyond even this.

Eric embarked upon the four month endeavour at the age of 59, having recently been seriously ill with bacterial meningitis and having lost bladder function as a result, causing him to require the use of catheters. If such facts are offered as detail, one must conclude that Eric must have been intensely motivated even to consider the challenge of cycling the length of Africa. And the fact that the motivation was to assist something outside of an unrelated to himself adds sincere respect to the awe felt at his achievement.

The motivation came from a desire to raise funds for a children’s home called Thamsanqa in Motherwell in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Eric visited in 2008, was impressed with what he saw and resolved to assist. Already a keen cyclist, a devotee of the mountain roads near his home in Spain, Eric latched onto the idea of a sponsored bike ride. And it’s not many of those that cover 12,000 kilometres! So, along with numerous other enthusiasts, and under the assisting wing of TDA, a company specialising in such cycling “holidays”, Eric set off from Cairo in a generally southerly direction.

The trip was organised so that the riders covered up to 200 kilometres a day, were generally fed from a support vehicle that preceded them and camped in recognised camp sites, sometimes associated with small hotels. Eric Olverson’s book, A Home To Head For, and his blog, ericonhisbike, are accounts of his trip. Indeed, anyone buying the book also donates to the Thamsanqa orphanage.

A Home To Head For is not a travel book. Nor is it a description of Africa as experienced as it was cycled. Neither, really, is it aimed at the cycling enthusiast keen to learn the detail of the challenge. In some ways it is more than any if these. The book is a tale of determination, Eric´s insistence on completing the task to the best of his ability. That he rarely allows doubt or low moments into the text is merely a reflection of how focused he remained on his challenge.

There was elation at the end, but relief too. Eventually, Eric was not one of the racers, but neither was he one of the tourists. By Cape Town, the reader has appreciated how much how much he wanted to do this trip and the determination he felt to see it through to completion. Don’t expect philosophising or much reflection, since in the four months there seemed to be little time for either. But do expect to feel the effort, even from your armchair, because Eric’s writing does communicate the experience. It was some achievement, and for a good cause.

Friday, February 17, 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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Jewel In The Crown by Paul Scott

Paul Scott’s The Jewel In The Crown is the first of his tetralogy of novels on British India. These really were the last days of the Raj. And the jewel in Empress Victoria’s crown was India, itself. Without it Britain may have remained a colonial power rather than an imperial one. Status was all. But Paul Scott’s book is no jingoistic celebration of empire. On the contrary it lays bare the pretensions, the racism and above all the class divisions that characterise the society that Britain exported to its colony. And, in the final analysis, while India embarked upon an unsatisfactory, divided independence, the British – certainly those directly involved, but perhaps the rest of us as well – remained trapped within their cocoon of often inappropriate and certainly blind presumptions. While India might challenge caste via development and prosperity, the British remain trapped in the class divisions that their own early economic success created.

Central to the story embedded in The Jewel In The Crown is the relationship between Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar. In 1942 Daphne is already a victim of war. She has lost all her family and has been driving an ambulance in the blitz. Her uncle, now deceased, happened to be a high ranking official in the British Raj so, by way of respite, she travels to her aunt in India to pick up the pieces of her life. She soon moves on to Mayapore where she does nursing in the hospital and also volunteers at the Sanctuary, a hospice for those found dying on the street. Hari Kumar is the lynchpin in the tale’s structure.

An only child, he was raised in Britain from the age of two and was about to finish school – Chillingborough no less, a prestigious public school – when his bankrupt father committed suicide. His mother had died in childbirth, so he was left both alone and penniless in England, the place he called home. An aunt in India was his only hope. So he is also in Mayapore trying to find a way of making some sort of living. He speaks no “Indian”, has an accent that to all but the English upper classes sounds like a put-down, has black skin over white identity, and so is accepted by no-one. Except the rather idealistic – perhaps naive – Daphne Manners, that is. And by the way, if you are not English, you need to know that in Britain a public school refers to a wholly private, privileged institution. Have we changed at all? Daphne and Hari become friends. But where can they meet? Clubs, restaurants and even workplaces enforce racial segregation. Even Lady Chatterjee, widow of Sir Nello, knighted by the English king, and with whom Daphne lodges, cannot get into such places, so Hari has no chance. But if Daphne goes local, she incurs the wrath and ridicule of her class and race-conscious compatriots who see their own status threatened if questioned.

Add to that the complication of timing, since the couple’s romance coincides with the 1942 Quit India campaign and the arrest and imprisonment without trial of Congress leaders and then protest riots. The real strength of The Jewel In The Crown, however, is Paul Scott’s insistence that we should see events from different perspectives. Not only do we hear Hari’s and Daphne’s account, but we also have the voice of the military, that of the civil administration and that of an Indian activist.

But it is always from outside, sometimes from afar, that we are presented with the attitudes and actions of the policeman, Ronald Merrick. It is his actions that are crucial to the book’s success. He is no upper class military type, no public schoolboy. He is an ambitious, self-made man with competence and a desire for achievement as his badge. He potenjtially is meritocracy personified. And so through the lives and actions of these characters, against a backdrop of war and colonial turmoil, Paul Scott creates a rich tapestry of comment on social class, ethnicity and politics.

It is a truly remarkable book and its observations, despite the unfamiliarity of the language to contemporary readers, are still relevant in today’s Britain, but are perhaps no more than an historical relic in today’ s India.

Joaquin Palomares and Bruno Canino playing Brahms, Grieg and Franck

The joy of music is that it is new every time it is played. There is no such thing as a definitive version of anything. A composer indicates intention, but, whatever the piece, the music only comes to life when it is interpreted. A programme of Romantic violin sonatas by Brahms, Grieg and Franck might, to the uninitiated, appear to be potentially run-of-the-mill. But such an assumption would ignore the potential interpretive contribution of two superb musicians, Joaquín Palomares and Bruno Canino.

The duo performed on 11 February 2012 in the first concert of La Nucia’s Spring Festival in the town’s beautiful Auditori de la Mediterrània. They have played together many times and their perfect understanding was in evidence from the very first notes of the Brahms second sonata. Joaquín Palomares’s violin playing was, as usual for him, supremely lyrical and was able to communicate the long melodic lines of Brahms’s style. And Bruno Canino’s piano playing throughout went way beyond the role mere accompanist. The almost tangible communication between the two players gave both shape and meaning to the music’s narrative.

Less familiar to most in the audience was Grieg’s third sonata, considered the best of the composer’s three works in the form. Palomares and Canino blended the elements of folk song, dance rhythms and northern toughness into a truly impassioned performance of a beautiful work. The contrasts were strong whilst at the same time the performers retained a wonderful balance that made perfect musical sense. Palomares and Canino together led their audience through the tableaux of the work’s scenes, endowing the whole with shape and thus accessibility.

Their final piece, the Franck sonata, is nothing less than a masterpiece. In the hands of Palomares and Canino, the piece played out almost like a novel, sounding like a mixture of confession and personal experience related with some pain but delivered with resolve. The catharsis of the final movement was striking, the virtuosity of the duo’s playing quite breathtaking.

The audience demanded and received no less than three encores and were treated to performances of the Brahms Scherzo, Tchaikovsky’s tender Melody and the haunting favourite, the Meditation of Thais by Massenet.

Joaquín Palomares and Bruno Canino offered their combined virtuosity to create a superb concert of mainly well-known music. But the quality of their playing was such that the experience became special, even for a listener who came to the concert familiar with the music. It was great music faultlessly played and beautifully interpreted.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vermeer´s Hat by Timothy Brook

Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook is not really about Vermeer, or hats, or art for that matter. It’s a book about globalization sixteenth century-style. Using elements from a few of the Dutchman’s paintings – plus some others from the period – the author identifies evidence of global trade, of the economic history of a century that saw the opening up of commerce on a scale the world had previously not known. And unlike the more academic studies of Wallerstein or Gunder Frank, Timothy Brook’s book is accessible even to the casual reader.

Its approach is highly original; its style is lucid and clear; its scholarship is nothing less than phenomenal. Early on in the text the author reminds us of the fundamental difference between the passing image and the narrative of art. ‘Paintings are not “taken”, like photographs;’ Timothy Brook writes, ‘they are “made”, carefully and deliberately and not to show an objective reality so much as to present a particular scenario.’ Objects in a painting are there for a reason. They are part of a narrative or comment that the artist chooses to relate, perhaps consciously. Our tasks as observers are partly to interpret as well as respond, as well as merely see. And make no mistake, the process is intellectual, not just aesthetic.

With an admirable eye for detail, Timothy Brook thus analyses seventeenth century paintings for evidence of international trade. But this is only a starting point for a truly global tour. A beaver hat, for instance, leads him to relate the story of how French expeditions into Canada sought pelts to feed demand for high fashion in Europe. It was the beaver’s fortune – or perhaps misfortune – to be born with a fur that, when transformed into felt, remained waterproof, and hence kept its shape in the rain. 

The consequences of this trade – apart from the obvious ones for the beavers – included conflicts with indigenous people, followed by subjugation and, in some cases, annihilation. A Chinese vase, a Turkish carpet and other artefacts around the house lead to the history of trade with the east and thus into how China developed into a manufacturing centre that sucked in Spanish colonial silver from South America to pay for its wares. A discussion of the galleon trade leads to Spain’s annexation of Manila and later the whole of the Philippines. In order to compete the Portuguese establish in Macau and the Dutch colonise the spiced islands.

What impresses the reader of Vermeer’s Hat is Timothy Brook’s skill – an artist’s skill, no less – in assembling potentially disparate scenes into an engaging and ultimately convincing narrative. Economic history thus becomes an engaging story that makes perfect sense. By the end of the century the British were also on the scene, having taken advantage of victories over the competition. We follow the spice trade, the spread of tobacco, trade in silk and ceramics and, of course, the lives of people who pursued and controlled the commerce. We learn how administrators and rulers reaped their own rewards, how illicit goods were smuggled in the same holds as declared cargoes. We see fortunes made and lost, ships sailed and sunk, reputations created and destroyed. And certainly we recognise the world as we know it, a modern world where only the technology is different. Vermeer’s Hat is a must for anyone who thinks that globalization might be a recent phenomenon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

When a book has won the Booker Prize and the film that it spawned has taken Oscars, the casual reviewer might be tempted to conclude that everything has already been said on its subject. Having just revisited the film after several years of absence, I decided to re-read the book. I don’t remember how many times I have read it now: let’s call it several. I have seen the film at least six times. First let it be said that the film, The English Patient, claims only to be based on Michael Ondaatje’s book. It is a film from the book, not of the book. The distinction is crucial because, despite the film’s admirable attempt to recreate the complexity of part of the novel, the book always went much further. 

In the book we have characters who have been scarred by war, by a war that none of them particularly wanted to fight. I suppose there are occasional wars where some of the participants want to be active. But here Caravaggio just wanted to stay a thief and thus keep his thumbs. And who would take over thieving if he is drafted to fight? Perhaps Hana’s father really did intend to see out the conflict and restart his previous life. Perhaps the English Patient, himself, did really want to be English. I doubt it.

Or perhaps the idea, that of nationality, given war, was mere irrelevance. It was sides that people counted. He certainly had much to hide, but from whom? What does it matter what side you claim to be on when it is only ever the innocent who fall victim? This last point is crucial to the feelings of Kip, the character who only just makes it into the film. For in the book this Sikh sapper, this bomb disposal specialist, who risks his own life to protect others, is a complex anti-colonial thinker. He has a sense of justice that transcends victory, especially when that victory is won at tremendous cost in the lives of those who did not fight. This aspect the film makers largely ignored. His character became a suspiciously like an aspect of the noble savage that remains gratefully unthreatening to colonialism. In the book his standpoint is far more radical than this.

And as far as Almasy is concerned, if that really was his name, he eventually worked for those people who would accept him at face value, without a racism that was suspected. On the other hand, he was Hungarian, and in that war the nation was sympathetic to fascism. So did he merely support his own country’s line? Whom would you believe? Whose motives are honest? Almasy’s love for the wife of a British war-monger was undoubtedly sincere, but at the same time obsessive. Might it have burned out if given the freedom to flame?

And did Katharine know of her husband’s contribution to war? If not, who was betrayed? In the film it is unclear that it took Almasy three years to return to the Cave of the Swimmers, and also spent much of the intervening time doing significantly more than merely handing over maps. Such is life in war. In film, it’s the gloss that counts. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s book, we are never clear about motives. These change whilst apparently remaining both consistent and sincere, despite remaining unknown, often unstated. There is continued life after the conflict ends, albeit utterly transformed, still dangerous, and then there is death which, for some seems the preferable option. There are principles, and these are largely underpinned by pragmatism. Above all there are actions and reactions. Ask any fuse. It might just blow you away from what you are. Light the blue touch-paper and stand back, well back.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Life Along The Silk Road by Susan Whitfield

Life Along The Silk Road by Susan Whitfield presents a highly original version of history. In some ways it is historical fiction, but she doesn’t make anything up. But then neither does she merely describe events. It’s not really fiction, but then it’s not a completely factual account of a turbulent period in the history of Central Asia. In 1999 when the book was published Susan Whitfield ran the International Dunhuang project in the British Library. This gave her access to tens of thousands of documents, scrolls and books that were discovered in sealed caves at the turn of the twentieth century.

The texts present an admixture of material, some of it religious, some administrative. Some of it is trivial, thus material of invaluable contextual importance for the historian, while some is poetic, and that helps the creation of fiction. Using the contents of this written material, Susan Whitfield has assembled a set of stories. She creates individuals who illustrate contemporary life as they live through, if they are lucky enough to survive, the great events of their times.

We meet merchants, soldiers, courtesans, artists, monks, nuns and officials. Their lives intertwine as they span the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, a period when overland trade via the Silk Road flourished and then began to decline. It was also a period when in China the Tang gave way to the Song and when numerous religions competed for adherents. Skilfully Susan Whitfield uses each of her characters, almost all of them at least partly real, the rest created by amalgam, to illustrate how lives are transformed by the great events of their times. They witness the attempted Arab conquest. They trade along the Silk Road. They visit Chinese emperors in their capital Chang’an, the modern-day Xian. They deal with Sogdian rulers, speak Chinese, Turkic, Mongolian and Tibetan, and deal daily with Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus and Muslims.

Their history thus comes alive. Dunhuang, with its stunning complex of Mogao caves, is central to these stories. At the end of the Tang dynasty in the tenth century, some of its artwork and statuary was already old enough to be in need of restoration. I have had the privilege of visiting the site and I rate the experience among the most impressive of all I have seen on all my travels. Susan Whitfield’s book took me back there and brought the experience to life. It’s an easy read, but then it needs to be because the subject matter is quite challenging for someone who is unfamiliar with the era and its events. The book is undoubtedly entertaining and at the same time informative. Through it, the reader can join these characters in their own time and experience a culture and way of life that will be immediately foreign, but ultimately understood.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

30 Days In Sydney by Peter Carey

Peter Carey’s 30 Days In Sydney claims to present a wildly distorted account of a writer’s return to a city he knows well. After ten years in New York, the author spends a month in the city he left behind and he records the experience. It’s not at all distorted, except interestingly via an essential personal perspective. It’s more than a travelogue, less than a memoir, certainly not a guidebook. The form is intriguing. It could pass as a commonplace book, the merely fleshed out notes of an individual’s visit to his own past. And the form works well. The idea, it seems, is to communicate a feel for a place.

The result is a collected experience where the personal rubs shoulders with the historical, where memory meets geography, where the past is partly lived again through recollection and the lives of others who themselves have moved on. And all of this takes place in less than sixty thousand words. Peter Carey’s aim of using the ancient elements, fire, air, earth and water, as a thread to bind his impressions, however, simply does not work. The idea appears and then seems to be forgotten for some time. The earth is surely special in Australia, quite unlike anywhere else. 

And water is everywhere in Sydney, whose harbour is surely one of the world’s most beautiful places. Fire certainly formed – and continues to form – this landscape: no Australian needs to be reminded of this. Air, however, did not seem to have its own angle, apart form the author having arrived by plane. Looking back now, perhaps the thread was there, despite the fact that at the time it seemed something of a complication.

Themes apart, 30 Days In Sydney is a delightful read because of the characters that Peter Carey meets, depicts and describes, both the living and the dead, the contemporary and the historical. The mix is unique. The rawness is abrasive, but the sophistication alongside is always breathtaking. Sydney is the kind of city where multiple cultures coexist. In that it is not unique. But it is also the largest city of a nation that has recently rediscovered an aboriginal identity that is being apologetically sanctified. It’s a city where the bar at the opera probably has a poker machine.

In Manly, the multi-class seaside suburb, a beautiful person with headphones and roller blades can flash past the open door of an amusement arcade while the police swing band, live in the open air, all in uniform and wearing shades, plays a Glen Miller selection. It’s a place where you can be pushed off the sidewalk by a redneck right outside the most utterly twee of art galleries. Such contrasts are all there in Peter Carey’s book.