Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Paul Scott saga does not show its age.

I am continuing with my reading of The Raj Quartet. These novels are as compelling now as they were when they were first published.

The Day of the Scorpion

Paul Scott’s The Day of the Scorpion (292 pages, University of Chicago, $22.50), the second volume in The Raj Quartet, deepens and intensifies matters that were raised in the first volume.

Daphne Manners has died and her mixed-race daughter has been taken in by her mother, the elusive Lady Manners. Lady Manners, for this claiming of the child and for her other eccentricities, is labeled an outcast by the English culture of India. She seems unaffected by this judgment and seems to circulate in a world of which these other English women are unaware.

A new family that comes into our ken is the Layton family. The father of this family is in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and the mother is in India with her two daughters, both of whom have grown up on the subcontinent. Sarah, the elder of the two, is plainer and more intelligent, than her bright, pretty, and unstable sister Susan. When making her way to her family’s station, Sarah finds herself in a houseboat next to that of Lady Manners. She secretly makes an acquaintance of that lady and finds that there is a true sympathy between them.

We also meet Mohammed Ali Kasim, a senior Moslem political figure who has been working for Indian national unity. He is one of the figures who was arrested on the night of the violence in volume 1, and we now hear his story and begin to understand more of the political implications of those arrests and the status of Indian independence in the middle of World War II.

Also, we have occasion to meet up with Hari Kumar in prison. Lady Manners has arranged to witness an interview in order to help her determine whether he is the father of the child that Daphne has left behind. No one knows the truth of what happened that night—no one now except Hari Kumar himself—but he still protects those intimate details from the prodding of even these sympathetic questioners.

All these threads are woven together as Susan Layton marries Teddi Bingham, and Gordon Merrick emerges as her husband’s off-hand choice of a best man. Merrick's motivations are reviewed once more—he is his own worst enemy for in defending his own actions, he digs himself into a deeper hole of ignominy. It only gets worse when, shortly after the marriage, he and Susan’s husband Teddie go off together on a military exploit at the Burmese border and Teddie is killed. Merrick himself is maimed—he is burned badly and loses an arm—but when Sarah visits him to convey her sister’s thanks for helping her wounded husband, she is upset to recognize the degree to which he gives her the creeps.

For me, Merrick is a weak link in the novel. He is so bad to be almost unbelievable. And he is “bad” first of all because we recognize his suppressed homosexuality and secondly because he is so clearly marked by class. I think it is far too easy for Scott to make the lower class queer the source of everything that is wrong about the British Indian empire. But he knows it is not that simple and the novel makes it clear that he sees further complications.

This volume ends powerfully and provocatively. Susan barely survives giving birth to a boy, and Sarah feels that her own life has changed almost as profoundly. Prisoners are being released and there seems some chance that England is being pushed toward an end-game in India. How that is worked out will be the subject of the next two volumes.

Paul Scott

The Day of the Scorpion
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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