Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon and A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster

Early on in A Passage to India, Ronny Heaslop, the British magistrate, becomes rather delighted to get a glimpse of what Dr. Aziz really thinks of the British:
"So you and he had a talk. Did you gather he was well disposed?"
Ignorant of this question, she [his mother, Mrs. Moore] replied, "Yes, quite, after the first moment."
"I meant, generally. Did he seem to tolerate us—the brutal conqueror, the sundried bureaucrat, that sort of thing?"
"Oh, yes, I think so, except the Callendars—he doesn't care for the Callendars at all."
"Oh. So he told you that, did he? The Major will be interested. I wonder what was the aim of the remark."
"Ronny, Ronny! You're never going to pass it on to Major Callendar?"
"Yes, rather. I must, in fact!"
"But, my dear boy—"
"If the Major heard I was disliked by any native subordinate of mine, I should expect him to pass it on to me."
"But my dear boy—a private conversation!"
"Nothing's private in India. Aziz knew that when he spoke out, so don't you worry. He had some motive in what he said. My personal belief is that the remark wasn't true."
"How not true?"
"He abused the Major in order to impress you."
"I don't know what you mean, dear."
"It's the educated native's latest dodge. They used to cringe, but the younger generation believe in a show of manly independence. They think it will pay better with the itinerant M.P. But whether the native swaggers or cringes, there's always something behind every remark he makes, always something, and if nothing else he's trying to increase his izzat—in plain Anglo-Saxon, to score. Of course there are exceptions."
There are many interesting things going on here; most obvious, I think, is the curious assertion that "Nothing's private in India." While Forster's novel does not actually include more than a few chanted words in Urdu or Hindi, he does depict a couple of conversations among the "natives" that aren't translated or even summarized. Whether speaking in Urdu constitutes privacy in the novel (or in the Raj) is an open question: the conversations Forster depicts are irrelevant to the novel (mostly, we can assume, gossip among the servants), and can the irrelevant really be private?

The other thing I think is interesting about the exchange above is Heaslop's assurance that the subjugated natives intend for all their actions and remarks to be decoded by the English, that they not only expect but participate in having their customs and their behavior translated into "plain Anglo-Saxon." Aziz knew full well that his remark would be interpreted correctly by some English person, even if it wasn't Mrs. Moore.

Of course, Forster's novel stands as a rebuke to both the idea that there is nothing private in India (the novel hinges on the terrible privacy of memory, a privacy whose faults cannot be corrected) and the idea that India is a land of mystery awaiting the interpretive work of the clever British. There is a very important passage about midway through the book that demonstrates this latter point with great grace:
Miss Quested saw a thin, dark object reared on end at the farther side of a watercourse, and said, "A snake!" The villagers agreed, and Aziz explained: yes, a black cobra, very venomous, who had reared himself up to watch the passing of the elephant. But when she looked through Ronny's field-glasses, she found it wasn't a snake, but the withered and twisted stump of a toddy-palm. So she said, "It isn't a snake." The villagers contradicted her. She had put the word into their minds, and they refused to abandon it. Aziz admitted that it looked like a tree through the glasses, but insisted that it was a black cobra really, and improvised some rubbish about protective mimicry. Nothing was explained, and yet there was no romance.
That last line would make a terrific epigraph.

***
The status of the West Indian immigrants in London in Selvon's novel cannot be more different from the East Indians in Forster's: their dialect does not require interpretation (and so no one treats it as a mystery to be decoded) yet it is also "plain Anglo-Saxon" enough to be used in the creation of both public and private spaces.

The entire novel is written in the dialect (though there are sections written with few obvious dialect markers), giving it a consistent feel of immersion. Yet this decision does not seem to have realism at its back, but poetry. On a literary level, it is far suppler than the stiff formalities of Forster's dialogue; it has a greater range and much more expressive force. If The Lonely Londoners were narrated in anything close to resembling Forster's primness, it would still be very good, but it would only be a slice-of-life guided tour. Selvon makes it impossible to maintain any distance from the characters, makes it impossible to take them either for a mystery or an irrelevance.

Here is a passage near the end of the book (no spoilers, though, I promise). If you love living in a city—or wish you did—well, enjoy:
What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything—sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the goverment, say all kind of thing about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?
In the grimness of the winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man's stick in the yellow fog, with ice on the ground and a coldness defying all effort to keep warm, the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners.
The Lonely Londoners is a quick book—both in length and in pace. I think it's a little difficult to get here in the States, but it's worth checking for. Inspired last year by reading Junot Díaz, I set myself an agenda this year to read some other Caribbean writers (Naipaul and Carpentier so far, Danticat and Chamoiseau likely to come) and have in all cases been really delighted by my reading, Selvon very much included.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Thanks for the excerpts, interesting post.