Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Division of the Spoils

I finished the Raj Quartet. I read the last half of the fourth volume in one day, due to its breathless pace at the end, and my desire to finish this monumental achievement. It's sad, actually. When I had about a hundred pages to go, I felt despondent: what was I going to read after this? what will sit on my bookshelf like an old friend, waiting to be picked up again? On the other hand, there's elation at completing such an undertaking.

It's not like the Raj Quartet is À la recherche du temps perdu or A Dance To the Music of Time in terms of length. But it is monumental. This is a staggering achievement and it's absolutely heartbreaking that Paul Scott doesn't enjoy the critical reputation as some of his contemporaries. The Raj Quartet is a masterpiece of post-colonialism fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, post-modernism, and even a thriller.


Section One - A Division of the Spoils

A Division of the Spoils seems to be the most plot-heavy of all four books. It's less concerned with symbols or metaphors, and more interested in allegory and plot. Scott takes his time at the beginning, setting up the new characters and moving everybody across the chessboard of British India.

At the beginning, in 1945, we meet Sergeant Guy Perron, an expert in Indian language and history. He is not an officer, but he comes from the ruling class back in England. He even went to school with Harry Coomer, or Hari Kumar nowadays. Perron is our point of view through the turmoil of Indian independence. He works in Intelligence, and meets Sarah Layton, Ronald Merrick and Nigel Rowan, who readers might not remember as being the officer who interrogates Kumar in the second volume.

It seems Merrick has fully ingratiated himself into the Layton family: he is going to marry Susan Bingham née Layton, widow of fellow officer Teddie Bingham. Sarah, her sister, is against this, but has no foothold in the family, due to a one night stand with an officer, an unwanted pregnancy, and ultimately, an abortion.

Sarah seems to be stuck in limbo, in regards to marriage. She keeps meeting Nigel, and contemplates a life with him, but she just can't seem to make it. She doesn't want a man whose life is India, a place that she feels is not home.

Politically speaking, the first half of the book is concerned with the Kasim family, including the Congressman father, the princely aide-de-camp son, and the traitorous elder son Sayed, an officer with the King's Commission who defects and joins the Indian National Army, that fights with the Japanese and against the British.

Merrick has been put in charge of questioning any and all captured INA members. But there is turmoil. The idea of the INA, while loathsome to the British, is a more complicated matter for Indians. Are they heroes, fighting against the tyranny of the Monarchy, or are they villains, traitors to peace and a future of Indian independence?

The second half of the novel has Perron come back to India on the eve of independence in 1947. Merrick has died under mysterious circumstances. The solution to the Muslim/Hindu/Sikh has been temporarily solved with the idea of Pakistan and India as separate countries. But this leads to constant civil unrest and violence, between all the groups.

As one can see, there is a lot of plot to talk about. There's tons going on, characters coming back, characters dying and tons and tons of politics. This is the most overtly political Raj novel, less concerned with the niceties of British society. That's not to say it doesn't play a large part.

One of the recurring themes of the Raj Quartet is the revisiting of scenes from a different perspective, not a Rashomon-style total difference, but revisiting how people felt about things. This doesn't happen as much in the fourth book, but there is a rather lengthy sequence in which Nigel Rowan brings Guy Perron up to speed on the whole Daphne Manners case. We get a little background in why Rowan was brought to investigate Merrick's handling of the case, and we get to revisit the tense interrogation scene of the second book.

In true Paul Scott fashion, even the other interrogator gets backstory and is fleshed out. This is truly indicative of the Quartet's strength: to populate an entire area with living breathing people. Just this, in of itself, is an impressive feat that succeeds completely. One could have even done with a cast list, just for refreshers.

The interrogation scene, mark two, is sort of a chore. At this point in the fourth book, the audience has gone over and over and over and over the rape a million times. But normally, when redoing a scene, new information is collected or new emotional territory is discovered. This is not quite the case with A Division of the Spoils' redo. The audience doesn't really learn anything new, and Rowan's character isn't really fleshed out any more due to the revisit. This is really the only weak spot in the entire book.

Luckily, Rowan and Perron are interested and dynamic characters. It's bold choice of Scott to introduce new characters in the last part. It's not normally done. But it works because of Scott's ability to get right inside of them and understand what they think and feel as they walk around observing.

One could almost say that the whole Quartet could have been boiled to one book if Scott had allowed himself access into Merrick's head. If we could have been inside there, we would understand everything, and not have to endlessly speculate, as Perron, Rowan, Count Dmitri Bronowsky and a host of other people do. Everybody is connected in some way to Merrick, but nobody connects with Merrick, save for maybe Sarah Layton, but she dislikes him and holds him at a distance; he is emblematic of everything Sarah finds uncomfortable about the Raj.

While it seems like Sarah takes a backseat to the plot of A Division of the Spoils, instead she is the star of the most moving and heartbreaking scene of all. Colonel Layton, her father, had been a POW of the Germans for all three books thus far, but in the final book, he comes home. Scott painstakingly recreates the train ride that takes Sarah and the Colonel from Delhi to Rose Cottage, and it's filled with some of the most emotional bits. John Layton has been irrevocably changed by his time in prison; he cannot stop cleaning up after himself, he tucks away pieces of bread for later, he adheres to exact personal schedules. Sarah wants to tell him everything, how she's tired of holding the family together, how she is no longer a virgin but a woman, how everything has changed, but she cannot. That is not the Layton way, and by proxy, the British way. It's easily the best scene in the entire novel.

A lot of this book is taken up with discussing Merrick, as I mentioned before. It seems that in this book, Merrick's paranoid, manipulative qualities has earned him a poor reputation. He finally gives into what he thinks is his dark side and he allows himself homosexual and sadistic urges. This is what finally lets Merrick sink into his fate. He chooses this fate, like he chose Hari, like he chose the Laytons, like he chose Perron. Merrick is a man of his own fate, and he's determined to live it.

The entire novel is filled with Scott's ability to sketch characters quickly, and then take the reader deep inside. He does this with Perron and Rowan and even Susan, during a beautiful scene at the end of the book. His prose is so crisp and clear, and he immediately immerses the reader into the world of 1940s-era India. It's truly incredible.

A Division of the Spoils is a captivating and gorgeous experience of a book, and I was sad to finally finish it, but it was worth all 2,000 pages that it took to get there.

Section 2 - The Raj Quartet

The entire oeuvre is due a mention. Now that I've finished the whole work, including Staying On, the coda at the end, I can stand back and appreciate the tapestry, and let me tell you: it's wonderful. I have honestly never read anything quite like the Raj Quartet. As aforementioned, it's historical fiction, it's romance, it's a mystery, it's a thriller. It's everything.

It's not a definitive statement on the Raj. Not even close. It's the opposite. It's the intimate portrait of various facets of Scott himself, and his inner demons and the subject that grabbed him and never let go.

I think I've said some books are masterpieces. There are a lot of them out there. The law of averages says so. But The Raj Quartet stands a little bit above all the alleged masterpieces. It's a tour-de-force, if I can bring out a creaky cliché.

It's epic while at the same time keeping with its roots. This is about the lives corrupted by the act of rule. This is about the systemic racism. This about love and honour and tragedy and brotherhood of man. It's sprawling in its scope, but paradoxically sharply focused on its themes, hardheaded and stubborn in conveying the inner corruption.

I've said it before: it's absolutely criminal that nobody reads Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet is one of the greatest works of literature ever, and in my mind, of the same quality as James Joyce's Ulysses and Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.

I've written probably 8,000 words about the Raj Quartet, and I could keep going. But I won't. I'll spare you. Maybe I'll watch the miniseries, but I don't think I will. I'm not sure if I could stand it. These four books are far too near and dear to my heart to let a visual representation mar the experience.

Now I have read some of Scott's other works. Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.

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