Sunday, January 29, 2012

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet ends in a powerful reminder of the cost of colonialism.

I have read these four novels one after the other because they are so compelling. Now that I have read them, I am pleased to be reminded of their particular power.

A Division of the Spoils

A Division of the Spoils (608 pages, $20, University of Chicago Press) is the last volume in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and it brings together many of the strands of the earlier three volumes.

We hear in this novel what happens to Merrick and what the ultimate diagnosis of this aggressive anti-Indian stance amounts to. Not the most satisfying feature of the novel, Merrick’s all-too-predictable sado-masochistic homosexuality is a dreary commentary on some of Scott’s own obsessions. Seeing Merrick dressed up in Indian garb before this execution is all too easy a way to explain some of the worst excesses of the British Raj. Merrick is always under suspicion because of class. He is demonized, to a certain extent, because he is not as well educated as other characters. And he seems to hate Hari Kumar, who barely appears in this volume, because Hari speaks a more educated English than he does.

If Merrick’s nighttime masquerading as an Indian doesn’t move a reader, however, there is plenty else that might. An assortment of characters who are involved in England’s gradual, but finally abrupt-seeming withdrawal from the sub-continent are all interesting in different ways.

Guy Perron, who appeared briefly as a seeming effete sergeant in earlier volumes, now reappears and moves from scene to scene pulling threads of the narrative together. Out of the same educational tradition—Chillingborough, which was Hari Kumar’s school, and Cambridge—Guy seems an anomaly in a world in which the more educated are usually the more highly ranked. But Guy prefers to remain a sergeant because he is not put into positions of huge responsibility. And with a very rich and well-connected aunt back in England, he has a kind of “get-out-of-jail-free” card, which he invokes more than once.

When Merrick meets Guy, after a grisly suicide and a baleful encounter with local largesse, he takes him up as a permanent assistant, beleaguering Guy with all his class anxieties and taking out on him some of the frustration he feels.

From Guy, though, who meets Sarah Layton and feels something of a romantic connection to her, we hear all about the movements of Merrick: his marriage to Susan Bingham, Sarah’s sister, and his involvement with a small Hindu principality throws a light on some of the local horrors of partition and the British abandonment of some of its promises.

Also, a character imprisoned for political beliefs, Mohammed Ali Kasim is released, and we see him in touching scenes with both his sons. The older, Salim, has fought with the Japanese troupes against the British in India, and the younger son, one of the most likable characters in the novel, becomes a victim of Hindu anti-Muslim violence in a horrifying scene that ends the novel.

This novel represents Scott at this best. It is as powerful now as it was when he published it in 1975.

Paul Scott

A Division of the Spoils is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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