Monday, June 10, 2013

Paul Scott's "The Towers of Silence": Book Review

In this third installment of the "Raj Quartet," we witness through the perspective largely of Barbie Batchelor the reaction to the incidents which comprised the core of "The Jewel in the Crown." Daphne Manners has died and her mother and her child are off-stage for all but a glimpse or two here; Susan Layton marries Teddie Bingham and we learn more about their courtship and brief marriage. Similarly, we find her sister Sarah becoming friends with Barbie when she moves in Rose Cottage with the Layton step-grandmother-in-law Mabel, in the hill station of Pankot, sister encampment to Ranpur where the unrest over the trial of Hari Kumar and his compatriots accused of raping Daphne had not spread to Pankot.

Instead, we get the slow transfer of rumors and gossip, along with Barbie's prominence in relating what she knows from her fellow missionary, Edwina Crane. Her fate will parallel that of Barbie, perhaps, a decline from confidence in the mission and its evangelical rationale to an encounter with a less comforting, existential resignation to the loneliness of the British who choose to defend the spiritual campaign in India alongside the military and civil functionaries who populate Pankot. Scott gradually draws Barbie's situation parallel to that of the Second World War, and the struggles felt from the battle zone, while they do not reach the hills, echo with the fate of Robert Merrick, who had persecuted Hari and his comrades so relentlessly.

After his tragic attempt to rescue Teddie during the fighting in Burma, Merrick confides in Barbie. His role here is gentler, tempered by his own gallantry, and Scott excels in their conversation as it reveals the unease at the heart of the British civilizing enterprise. The book moves slowly. I think Scott for once overtipped his hand at the coda, in linking too tightly world events to Barbie's decline, but he may have done this to forge an imperial analogy of one Englishwoman's fall to that of the empire and its crown jewel. Most of the narrative stays subtler. Much of it takes place at Rose Cottage, with an almost Jane Austen-like attention to conversational shifts and character revelations barely perceived without intense scrutiny to tone and intent and what's said or unsaid.

Teddie's reaction to Merrick's talk about the Indian National Army which allies against the British with the Japanese reminds me of the book's structure. "Formless, almost shapeless, the beauty consisted in the subtle cohesion of what seemed like disparate parts and in the extraordinary flexibility of each arrangement made to bring them together." (Everyman's Library ed. 2007, p. 126) Scott features no high drama as in "Jewel" or especially its sequel which delved into Captain Merrick's interrogation of Hari, "The Day of the Scorpion," but we learn how both titular symbols endure here. The picture of Queen Victoria receiving homage of the world's peoples lacks, Barbie notes, an unknown Indian. The scorpion bites itself when surrounded by fire only due to its sensitivity to the heat, the sun, the light.

This book will unsettle you. Four hundred pages show Scott's narrative control, but it's grim much more than droll. It's to be read after the first two, naturally. It advances their timeline forward through the war, but those events remain dim and distant. While Scott characteristically filters the disintegrating coherence of Barbie powerfully, it's not pleasant: "the vision was shut off again by barriers of fleshy faces, arms, bosoms, chins and epaulettes, the bark and chirrup of the human voice manufacturing the words which created the illusion of intelligent existence." (195) Barbie looks at a swain for Sarah and sees "the enthusiastic expression of mediocrity which Barbie had learned to recognize from years of looking in a mirror." Unsparing in its glances at sex, birth, marriage, faith, and death, Scott provides in Barbie a disturbing depiction of the breakdown of belief and of order. (P.S. I also briefly reviewed the Everyman's Library ed. of vols. 1-2 combined. This review above was under a listing for "Towers" itself on Amazon US 6-29-12)

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