Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Jewel in the Crown

I have finally finished the first part of Paul Scott's epic Raj Quartet. I realize it's taken me awhile, but it is a difficult novel, and there's lots to discuss in terms of a review.

On the surface, The Jewel in the Crown is about the rape of an English girl living in a small Indian town by a group of Indians, possibly peasants. Daphne, the raped girl, has been hanging around a young Indian by the name of Hari Kumar, or Harry Coomer, as he was known in England, where he was raised. This relationship is looked down upon by most people, including the malicious police captain, Ronald Merrick, who has designs for marrying Daphne. Unfortunately, Hari is arrested by Ronald for the rape, and subsequently imprisoned, while Daphne and Hari refuse to co-operate in the investigation. Only they know the truth of what happened that night.

This above synopsis is honestly only the sparsest of plot details. In reality, this novel is huge in scope. The evening of the rape, the most important date of the plot, occurs during a mass riot, due to political machinations relating to Britain's rule of India. This riot is examined in minute details from a military, civil, and personal point of view by numerous characters. The events in question are dissected and agonized over again and again, like the novel is a mystery, a whodunit, but the rape is figurative, not literal.

Paul Scott is interested in themes of power, power over race, political power, military power, power over people, and how it corrupts. Ruling India, or ruling anything, corrupts, Scott is trying to say, and he does so in the most sweeping and epic manner.

His skill at employing different voices, different people to paint a mosaic, is unbelievable. Every time I read this book, I was taken to India of the 40's. I was there with the characters, who were real, dynamic, and breathing. This is a masterful creation of characters.

However, the chronology, and the minute attention to detail left me breathless, sometimes. For example, at the end of the novel, when another account of that fateful night is being unfolded, the whereabouts of a bicycle are related to the reader in pages upon pages. The detail was almost too much.

This is facetious criticism considering I've volunteered to read 2000 pages about the same few events told by a huge cast of characters, going back and over everything again and again. An insane level of detail is to be expected.

It seems Scott needs this amount of detail. He is telling a huge story full of emotion, raw and stinging. You can almost feel the bile and disdain that Scott has for the concept of the British Raj. But he never lets it touch the characters. Even the most unsympathetic fellows in the novel are treated fairly by the author. It seems most people are pawns of a larger, more sinister game, one of colonialism and imperialism.

Post-colonial literature is something I've always been interested in, and have taken up once again. With Barry Unger's bitter Sacred Hunger, and J. G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy, this makes an excellent critique of British imperialism, and is an important text in the study of post-colonial literature. This stands as an excellent quintessence of what these authors were doing: a re-writing of history that shows imperialism and colonialism in its true light. I look forward to reading more and learning and engaging with the text.

Other than a small quibble concerning attention to detail, The Jewel in the Crown is a fantastic novel. Paul Scott is interested in huge themes with vast panoramas with multiple characters, and he proves able to do so. However, this novel is only the first of four. He has merely set the stage it seems. Bear with me as I keep going, keep reading.

1 comment:

Christine Clark said...

A fine novel, could be a super movie.
The TV show nearly worked.
You should compare with Forster's Passage to India.