Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Paul Scott's "A Division of the Spoils": Book Review

This closes the great Raj Quartet.  Six hundred closely printed pages of the Everyman's Library edition with "The Towers of Silence" close the saga of the terrible, enigmatic, yet not to be unpitied Ronald Merrick's entry into the lives of Hari Kumar, the Laytons, and most of all two new characters, Nigel Rowan and Guy Perron, both serving in the military in India at the end of WWII. The war's conclusion means Perron will finagle an escape from service back to England, but he will return, and his story, sometimes conveyed through first-person narration, once in a while by diaries, dominates this novel.

Early on, Perron after four years enlisted "had learned to look upon the entire war as an under-rehearsed and over-directed amateur production badly in need of cutting." (415, Everyman ed.)  The fears of having to attack the Japanese fade as the news of the atom bomb, heard first in "Towers" as Barbie Batchelor's crumbling sanity reflects the breakdown of the old order of the British Raj, ebb for Guy and Nigel and their comrades, although one, in a powerful character study, cannot cope.

Captain Purvis suffers from an intestinal ailment that in "Towers" was posited by a keen observer to account for the short tempers and long lassitude endemic to many British who served in India. Purvis may be a bit of welcome if typically for Scott acerbic comic relief (there are few laughs in this entry). But he also makes a plaintive lament: "Six years! Six years' criminal waste of the world's natural resources and human skills. History, you said?" (431) The unreality of the war he and Guy have just survived, as the mission to invade the Japanese redoubts in Malaya is called off, sinks in.

So, too, is the unreality of the Raj, the sense that now the British will have to leave India after hundreds of years of their own invasion, and their own occupying force takes on an awkward role as Indian independence must be negotiated and Pakistani separation must be established. These efforts serve as the setting for most of "Division."

Merrick, elevated to Lt-Colonel, must take on the vexed situation of how to deal with the Indian National Army, which had fought along with the Japanese against the British Army's sepoys, as its defeated ranks return--to a heroes' welcome among some and a traitors' sentence among others. This divided reaction foreshadows the fate of India, as it too will be split among those who sided with the Crown for so long and those who comprise a Hindu or Muslim majority bent on leaving the Raj behind. Mirat, symbolically and practically as partition looms, faces its own demise, the princely state the center of much of the action of "The Jewel in the Crown" and "The Day of the Scorpion."

The Colonel in his own complicated (this being a British novel as well as a colonial one) class status finds in his nemesis Hari Kumar a like-minded individual determined to advance his own chances in the power structure. Kumar is off-stage this novel, as he has been in "Towers," but the continuing effects his police case set in motion linger for a bitter, wounded, and clever Merrick as well. In Perron's view (he aspires to be an academic analyst of Indian policy earlier in the Raj preceding the Great Mutiny) Merrick "lacked entirely the liberal instinct which is so dear to historians that they lay it out like a guideline through the unmapped forests of prejudice and self-interest as though this line, and not the forest, is our history." (715) A nice summation of the Whig view of history as progress?

Late in this long stretch into the last days of the British hegemony over the jewel in the crown, Perron goes "through a narrow Moghul arch into a dark stone corridor--the kind in which you feel the weight of India: a heavy darkness which is a protection from glare and heat but reminiscent of tombs and dungeons." (931) Mirat's palace stands for more than itself, naturally.

This novel demands close attention. Using Guy (we also find Sarah Layton in one chapter telling her side) as the key witness, in both indirect and direct narration, proves a smart choice, for as an outsider, he takes us deeper into Merrick's power over those around him. Some events turn out to be momentous, others anti-climactic and offhand, truer to life perhaps than fiction, come to think of it.

While Paul Scott's measured, crafted prose is never difficult yet often beautifully conveyed, you do return to material in previous novels via other people that keeps getting re-interpreted, and layers of accretion continue to slowly rise, inexorably, as Hari Kumar's predicament (does he now understand the difference between karma and dharma?) never leaves any behind who've heard of it. Scott combines this gradual accumulation of detail intricately, as in a splendid comparison to a political cartoonist's depiction of a great sale clearance of India as if some grand department store and bazaar with disparate customers lining up and entering or exiting. Even a fish souffle takes on, in his careful detail, a sectarian as well as culinary resonance in one scene.

Over the considerable time I have invested in the Quartet, I wondered if the subject matter needed such Proustian evocation and Tolstoyan scope. I leave that to critics, but the four installments allow us a marvelous way for the patient reader to delve into the impact of sectarianism, politics, war, imperialism, and ambition within a convoluted study of manners, as if the English novel in the mode of Jane Austen's characters meets Thackeray's social commentary, mixed moreover with historiography and analysis. It ends movingly, as one climactic scene reverberates as a harbinger of what India and Pakistan will contend over in the summer of 1947, and in the decades to come. (Amazon US 7-21-12; see also a brief review of the Everyman's Library ed. of vols. 1-2.)

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