Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paul Scott's "The Day of the Scorpion": Book Review

Part two of the Raj Quartet explores WWII-era India from two perspectives. Hari Kumar, back from an English upbringing, languishes in prison after his arrest for the rape of his lover, Daphne Manners, who died at the end of "The Jewel in the Crown." Their baby's fate remains rather open, while Sarah Layton meets it as the sequel opens. She provides the central consciousness, filtered again by an omniscient narrator, into the British response to the rape trial and its prisoners.

Captain Merrick, who played a leading role in the interrogations, now looms as a possible swain for Sarah, but his own injury on the front fighting the Japanese and their Indian allies-- in a dramatically paced episode-- makes their courtship more oblique than direct. She does lose her virginity to an enlisted cad in a late scene that reveals Scott's powers of description: "She closed her eyes, exploring the illusion of possession which such an adoration might create between two people and was then aware that her hands were no longer held except by the desire to explore. Her own head was taken. For a while they stayed so, enacting the tenderness of silent lovers, and then slowly bending her head she allowed him to deal with the old maid's hook and eye." (946; Everyman edition)

Combining compassion and distance, Scott's voice registers throughout this lengthy novel memorably. This will place demands on the reader, and while some of the passages defy it seems the normal pauses and silences and bathroom breaks that in real life might make for less sustained and elegant recollection, the literary artifice of the narrative brings instead of brute realism its own shimmering and dreadful beauties. The very long interrogation of Hari, the reveries of Sarah, and the machinations of Count Bronowsky, the Pandit, and other military officials add verisimilitude and interest to this story.

Still, as before with "Jewel," this remains the story of the British reaction to India. Sarah muses: "They did not transplant well. Temperate plants, in the hot-house they were brought out too quickly and faded fast, and the life they lived, when the heat had dried them out and left only the aggressive husk, was artificial. Among them, occasionally, you would find a freak in whom the sap still ran." (629)

Later at her sister Susan's wedding:
"She had a fleeting image of them all as dolls dressed and positioned for a play that moved mechanically but uncertainly again and again to a point of climax, but then shifted in ground, avoiding a direct confrontation. Each shift was marked by just such a pause, and the wonder perhaps was that the play continued. But the wind blew, nudging her through the creamy thinness of peach-coloured slipper satin and she and they were reanimated, prodded into speech and new positions." (667)
Such artificiality permeates their Indian presence. Loneliness dominates. "Why we are like fireflies too, she told herself, travelling with our own built-in illumination, a myriad portable candles lighting windows against some lost wanderer's return." (716) Miss Manners, aunt of Daphne, when witnessing Hari's interrogation, reflects on them as
"lovers who could never be described as star-crossed because they had no stars. For them heaven had drawn an implacable band of dark across its constellations and the dark was lit by nothing except the trust they had had in each other not to tell the truth because the truth had seemed too dangerous to tell." (793)

Near the end, Sarah sees her sister's reaction to her new husband's death, after Merrick had tried to save them both on the front. Susan, as did Daphne, brings another long narrative to a close with a mix of horror and poignancy, and another child is born by a disturbed British woman into this troubled land. "We sense from the darkness in you the darkness in ourselves, a darkness and a death wish. Neither is admissible. We chase the illusion of perpetual light. But there's no such thing. What light there is, when it comes, comes harshly and unexpectedly and in it we look extraordinarily ugly and incapable." (988) No plucky heroism or stiff upper lips here.

This disturbs the reader. Less than its predecessor, which spread the narrative among different voices and registers, Sarah's tone darkens this installment. Even when she retreats, the ominous detachment dominates. Sometimes an eerie Orientalism arises between the British and the Indians, a doomed inevitability. Hari, the embodiment of British and Indian in one troubled soul, tells his captors about Merrick's stress on "enactment" of actions which are negative themselves, but fall between earlier actions as a consequence and before others as a prelude. History adds up to situations in which no significance can be seen until the actions are finished, or abandoned for fear of responsibility by their actors, "and so in a curious way the situations did become part of a general drift of events." (797) This combined fatalism and control drifts over the events that Hari has acted in, but determines to stand apart from as he asserts his right to silence about the night he and Daphne became lovers, and that same night he was arrested for her gang-rape.

Few will survive this pressure. Miss Manners watches Hari's testimony and feels that she's "driving to my grave."
"Why and so you are, a voice told her. She recognized it from other occasions. Old people talked to themselves. From a certain age. No. Always. Throughout life. But in old age the voice took on a detached ironical tone. Passion had this determination to outlive its prison of flesh and brittle bone. As it made arrangements to survive it grew away, like a child from its favourite parent, impatient for the moment of total severance and the long dark voyage of intimate self-discovery. And so you are, her voice said. Driving to your grave. The parting of our ways. A release for both of us. One to oblivion, one to eternal life so unintelligible it ranks as oblivion too. And already our commitment to each other is worked out and nearly over. Momentum will carry you through what motions are left to you to show your grasp of situations and responsibilities." (807)
Among these, little Parvati Manners, child of imprisoned Hari and the dead Daphne, must be cared for by the elderly Lady M. Meanwhile, Sarah lingers in her own aftermath of her brief passion, and within such fragile lives, Anglo-India prepares to meet its own demise. Surrounded as the title indicates by their enemies, the colonials will attack back, symbolized by the scorpion stinging itself to death when circled by a ring of fire by those who seek its destruction. (Posted to Amazon US 7-13-09. I read the two-volume Everyman edition pairing "Jewel" with "Day" but this British cover illustration's better.)

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