Colonial novels: the good, the bad, and the ugly part I

Image result for kim kipling
I don't know if I've ever talked about my deep dislike for Kipling's much beloved Kim, but for me it represents everything I don't want in a colonial novel. Kim is a British street ruffian involved in various military and private schemes in turn of the 20th-century northern-India. He speaks Hindustani better than English, adopts a Buddhist holy man, and gets into various scrapes on a pilgrim trail. The social hierarchy of the British is ridiculed, but at the same time, reified through Kim's character itself. Even if the Indian characters are allowed to be human and flawed and layered in the way Kim is--Kim's Tom Sawyerish superior cleverness ultimately exemplifies the subtextual British imperial superiority. It's a hard trait to swallow in an age of postcolonial criticism (if not the true disappearance of Empire). To be clear, I'm fond of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, so I'm not so much a Kipling-hater as a Kim-detractor. I also don't love the way Kim is written--it's snobbish and spends a great deal of time talking about the attributes in horses and philosophy I find least interesting.

Image result for heart of darkness
In contrast, last year I finally read Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (I know one is supposed to read it in school but it was never assigned to me, maaf kar do), and although I found the philosophy and descriptive prose riveting, the faceless and animalistic way that black Africans are drawn left me feeling queasy. That's hardly a revelatory critique, but Kim seems a humanizing, progressive work in comparison--despite the fact that it brings me no literary joy.

A lot of people (especially in the sphere I find myself in these days), perhaps rightly, avoid colonial fiction altogether and choose to champion postcolonial fiction. Unfortunately, I'm not so great at appreciating present-tense prose (kill me now unless you are actually translating your book from a present tense-heavy foreign language) or magical realism (why not just call it fantasy in need of anti-depressants?), so this category often loses me with it's stylistic trends.  I do read postcolonial fiction that suits my stylistic tastes when I can find--it's just that Nadine Gordimer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie etc. are not without plenty of blogger commentary.

For me colonial fiction reaches its zenith in the 1920s-1940s, when empires were falling and folks were starting to question the imperial mission. Questions and shifting loyalties and cracks in international edifices begin to appear everywhere. What luck! It's also my favorite period of popular fiction, so I'm doubly biased. Anyhow, I've read quite a bit of fiction in this category in the last several years, and below I shall sort them based on my own arbitrary criteria into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Just because and just so.

Note: My list below only includes work by white settler colonial writers, because their flaws and successes happen within the same conversation: the discussion of how to critique the oeuvre of the oppressor.

Ethical points: This work:
  • Questions or examines the behavior, system, or mindset of imperialism
  • Portrays non-European characters in humanizing and interesting ways
  • Engages in self-reflection of  main character's European colonial interaction with non-European colonized people
  • Heart, humanity, beauty expressed
Stylistic points: This work:
  • Provides pure entertainment
  • Provides philosophical or poetic or descriptive pleasure


Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953) Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden grew up in East Bengal on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, and moved back and forth from England to India until the end of WWII. Her unusual early childhood years are fictionalized in The River, later made into a pretty, if a bit tone-deaf film by Jean Renoir. Though it's hard to find a mainstream review that doesn't compare her Indian novels to A Passage to India (which she admits was a revelation for her in the 1920s), in my opinion, her novels collectively hold more authentic emotional and critical weight.

This particular novel is a heavily autobiographical account (see her memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, for the slightly more literal version of the story), fictionalizing her hungry years as a single mother in Kashmir. In reality, Rumer's husband had gambled away their house and fortune and the two maintained separate households during the war years in lieu of an immediate divorce; with Rumer receiving next to no financial support. Instead of going back to an England that had never felt like home, especially in the midst of the waves of air raids, she (and her character) choose to find a place in Northern India to wait out the war. This novel depicts that attempt to live on next-to-nothing (though she explains that many around her had literally nothing) in rural Kashmir near Srinagar. The protagonist, a mother of two children, is hardly a typical memsahib. She speaks and writes Urdu, her closest friends are local Hindu and Muslim merchants, and her children are brought up in an uncouth way (that surely represented Rumer's longing for her own freedom as a child at her Assam home). At first the situation feels idyllic. But she finds herself in deeper and deeper cultural water as the years pass.

She doesn't realize until the eleventh hour that she has been creating enemies of the locals through a series of ignorant, seemingly small lifestyle choices. When her entire family falls sick of a mysterious illness, she begins to believe that she is being poisoned. Eventually, the would-be murderer is unveiled, but it is here that the protagonist's own position as a hostile outsider in the locals' eyes that is truly revealed. As this situation was taken straight from Rumer's experiences, the novel's nuanced and intellectual treatment of the fictionalized "villain" of her own nightmare stands out as an almost superhuman feat of self-examination and social critique.

6/6 points: all the ethical points, but is certainly not an "entertainer." Thought-provoking, philosophical, if anxiety-inducing tale.

A Passage to India (1924) E M Forster

This needs no introduction. I feel it is a better novel for the conversation it launched than its actual content...which sometimes feels contrived, if strongly sketched.

6/6 points: Reflection and questioning drives the plot, the characterizations are fascinating, but it's missing a bit of heart. Entertaining? In the way a noir film keeps you on the edge of your seat and refuses to answer your questions . . . yes.

The Lady and the Unicorn (1938) Rumer Godden

This story flows from Rumer's time as a dance teacher in Calcutta and her distress over the way *Anglo-Indians (then called Eurasians) were treated by mainstream (i.e. white) colonial society. As she herself was marginalized as a working woman who associated with the Eurasian set, it was even more personal of an issue for her. It's a very early example of her work, and thus verges on a syrupy melodrama she avoids later, but is still an evocative picture of ugly racial and class tension amongst "good society."

5/6 points: explores gray areas of representation and still manages to entertain while questioning the system.

*Sometime I'd really like to write or read an analysis of Anglo-Indians in Bengali film and literature. For those bloggers who watch Bengali cinema, what are the depictions that stick out to you? For me, Rina in Saptapadi (1960) or that one working girl in Mahanagar (1963), come to mind.

The African Queen (1935) C S Forester

90% of this novel is a description of a perilous river journey undertaken by two misfits, a crotchety trader and a spinster missionary woman. Symbolically or not, the emblem of the "civilizing mission", the woman's missionary brother, dies in the first pages of the novel, leaving her free to experience the "real" Africa, or at least the real wilderness. "Natives" are nowhere to be found here, really, except as moving targets or potential converts. If you've seen the Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film, you've definitely experienced a more satisfying version of the story. What the book touches that the film can't is an earthy exploration into the mindset of two lovable, if tremendously ordinary, white settlers in an extraordinary situation. The examination of colonialism is perhaps more a critique of imperialist gains or losses on the African continent in WWI. Defending a lake or a jungle which can only marginally be claimed for any European power by a sane observer, suddenly becomes the height of absurdity. Here, Europeans are out of place and useless in aggregate, it is only the individual human spirit that matters.

4/6 points: Heart is everywhere here, it is ultimately the only "winner" against the unfeeling elements. A lot of points lost for the invisibility of black Africans themselves.

The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories (1920s-1940s) Herman Charles Bosman

There are two popular readings of Bosman's works in South Africa these days. One, people see his work as an outdated send up of early 20th century Afrikaner/Boer farming society that is unacceptably affectionate in the wake of Apartheid's terrors. Two, his satirical short stories are beloved for their intricate commentary on the absurdities and not so lekker aspects of plaas lewe (farm life). Bosman gathered most of his material living in the real farming community of Groot Marico in the Northwest province of South Africa. His most popular narrator, Oom (Uncle) Schalk Lourens is a fountain of humorous tales about feuding farmers, Boer war tragedies, starry eyed arrogant youths and aging commandos, ghosts and the supernatural, and endless dorpie (village) archetypes.

I wouldn't blame any black South African who finds him completely unpalatable. Bosman's tone is almost unfailingly jocular, even in his saddest stories. Bosman may seem unforgivably callous towards social issues and injustices to the modern reader. However, his strength lies in his ability to reveal both the ridiculousness and the humanity in extreme Calvinism or Boer bigotry or rural ignorance or cultural taboos. All is treated to an equal helping of irony and laughter. Afrikaans folks still regard Bosman with some degree of awe: because this settler/pioneer farming culture (not at all unlike the German and Scandinavian farming culture from which I hail) has never been satirized with more biting accuracy. (The Groot Marico Bosman festivals also look painfully similar to Midwest literature festivals, and I'm still laughing about it.)

Like every brilliant satirist, he is divisive. If you read his stories for black African representation, you may see offensiveness where I see harsh critique. Either or neither of us may be right, Bosman's true beliefs are shrouded in the legends with which he surrounded himself until his early death in 1951.

4/6 points: One of the wittiest AND the most poignant writers I've ever come across. To me, he is
Saadat Hasan Manto crossed with Mark Twain. And if that doesn't make you want to pick up his literature as a complete uitlander (outsider), I don't know what will.

Circles in a Forest (1984) Dalene Matthee

This South African classic stands out for its understanding of the environmental destruction endemic to the colonial era (whether imperialist extraction or through unthinking settlement of the wilderness). It also provides a rare analysis of class and cultural differences in settler colonialist society in South Africa. In some ways this is an apologist treatise for poor white Afrikaans farmers, and in other ways, it is an indictment of the entire settler project. Dalene is read religiously in Afrikaans educational institutions, but her flaw in this--her best work--is that she almost completely ignores racial oppression amongst the many injustices (often British-imposed, an ongoing theme in a century of bitter Afrikaans literary memory) she critiques. As it was released in the last days of Apartheid censorship, perhaps this is understandable, but it doesn't make it quite forgivable. Still, an amazing read for those who can give it room to be a product of its time. You could also watch the 1990 film starring a young Arnold Vosloo, but it's more interesting as a representation of cinema from a transitional South Africa than for anything it does well (which is little).

Note: Matthee's stories are set in her home near the resort towns surrounding Knysna forest, where a tragic series of fires wiped out many communities earlier in 2017. People have blamed climate change for the ongoing drought conditions in southern South Africa, but either way, it points to the continuing necessity of prioritizing conversations about tourism and human-environment interaction in developing states; and the disproportionate effects of environmental catastrophes on low income and informal settlements.

4/6 points: What it loses to National Party propaganda, it almost makes up for in its hardscrabble protagonist's fight to protect nature from the encroaching global capitalist threat. What, that sounds strangely relevant to today's issues? That's because it is.

Next time: The BADDDDDD ... at least in terms of colonial critique and self-examination.


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