Archive for ‘history’

August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

I’ve been ill, and so I’ve been comfort-rereading the Wolves Chronicles. Here is some thinking about one of them in particular.

TheStolenLakeThe Stolen Lake is set in an alternate history in which, during the Saxon invasion of Britain, a large community of (Romans and Briton) refugees fled to South America and founded the countries of Hy Brasil, New Cumbria and Lyonesse. This occurred soon after Arthur had left for Avalon; Guinevere was still alive, however, and knowing that Arthur would probably come back over the water had the lake transported in frozen blocks to New Cumbria, so that he would have somewhere to come back to.

There … is some stuff going on here. It’s never entirely clear to me what aspects of our world’s history do and don’t make it into Aiken’s alt-histories. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan (in Reading History in Children’s Books) point out that though it’s tempting to try and find a/the jonbar hinge in the Wolves series and extrapolate what changes might have stemmed from there, it’s all but impossible to do so; that form of alternate history is simply not the framework within which this series operates. I do understand this, and I don’t think this is an attempt to read the book in such terms. But there is, as I say, stuff going on, and I’m particularly interested in trying to parse for myself what it’s doing with regard to my own pet subjects, space and empire. The other books in the series don’t really suggest much is going on with the British empire–the monarchs we see are all benevolent and vague, and things like the East India Company aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, there are trading ships travelling across the world, pirates, and missionaries in China. Meanwhile, British material culture is broadly as you’d expect it to be for the mid/late 19thC. This is all fine; we’re in that familiar space of British children’s literature where the country is small and decent and there is no shortage of tea.

But then we leave the British Isles and it gets newer and more interesting. That long ago flight to South America described by this book takes place in 577AD. We’re not sure what it means for (our world’s history of) Spanish and Portugese colonialism, if the Americas are already widely known within Europe and large parts of South America are already essentially a British colony. Several minor characters have names like Jose or Gomez, but this could either signal an Iberian influence that happened anyway or simply be a shorthand for “South American” (since in the world in which the book is written, the Spanish and Portuguese did conquer the region). Scraps of information suggest that the Inca empire has continued in some form into the book’s present (sometime in the mid-19thC), though they don’t come into this book’s plot. It’s also not clear what the racial makeup of the three Roman colonies is–did the original colonists kill most of the natives, intermarry with them, or were the lands just mostly empty, terra nullius except for that one picturesque and unnamed tribe who shrink heads? (Of whom more later.) There are ancient temples on mountains here, but they are dedicated to “Sul” (New Cumbria’s capital is “Aquae Sulis”), who is also somehow Medusa. Hy Brasil (the book’s afterword explains what Hy Brasil was) is ruled by a king named Huascar, son of Huayna Capac, and there is a hint that the country will soon be taken over by Huascar’s brother, Atahuallpa; all pretty much as recorded, just a slightly different empire and three centuries late.

[According to Neil Philip, a major scene in Alan Garner’s Elidor was based in part on Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which dramatizes Atahualpa’s encounter with Pizzaro. I’d love to know (someone must) whether Aiken had likewise seen or read Shaffer, or if for some reason there was particularly widespread interest in the Incas in 1960s and 70s Britain and both Aiken and Shaffer were affected by it.]

stolen lake gorey

Bodily transporting a myth across continents is fraught at the best of times. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, we’re told that the Greek gods have moved their centre of operations to New York because America just is the centre of things now, so *shrug*. It’s a piece of imperial thinking that is so basic to the structure of the books that even the increasingly politically aware novels later in the series never quite get away from it. Riordan struggles to navigate this (as does Gaiman in American Gods, from what I remember of it) but I’m not convinced that there’s a way to do it that doesn’t invoke and then validate geopolitical inequalities. In this case, the myth is being transported specifically to a (current) colony, which makes this aspect of the situation even more acute.

Then there’s the fact that the Arthur myth itself is one that is inherently about landscape–Arthur territorially binds Britain (see Subramanian, 2017, or just take my word for it that I have a thesis chapter on this), is buried under Britain, will rise to save Britain. It makes sense, then, that the myth can only be relocated by relocating a part of the landscape itself. [That image of individual ice blocks being transported by ship (at some point they must have crossed the equator, I protested) also calls to mind that recurring image, in British children’s literature of the mid-century, of Americans buying up British heritage buildings and relocating them. (I have no idea if this happened often, yet the prevalence of the image has convinced me it did. Wikipedia suggests that there were at least a few prominent instances.)] Unsurprisingly, we discover that Arthur is inscribed upon the local landscape as well–travelling into the mountains the characters see huge geoglyphs that resemble their companion’s birthmark.

Above I suggest that we’re not really being invited to consider these books through the lens of European imperialism, but Ginevra, this version of Guinevere, is a nightmare colonist. Not only has she showed up and reshaped the entire landscape as well as instilling her own weird religious system, but she is preying upon her subjects in more horrifying ways. It turns out that she is a sort of cannibal, who has stayed alive for these several centuries by murdering and consuming local children. (Again, it’s not immediately obvious how race works in New Cumbria, but the racial politics of the situation also seem striking.) In order to protect them from Ginevra and her minions, local parents send their children to work in the mines underground where, horrific though the conditions are, their chances of survival are marginally better. The princess of the comparatively idyllic neighbouring kingdom of Lyonesse finds the existence of an entire industry based on child labour horrifying, but Dido Twite, Aiken’s London born, working class protagonist is less surprised. “It should not be allowed. It is not so in Lyonesse.” “It is in England.”

It’s possible, then, to read Ginevra not only as individually monstrous (though she is), but representative of much that is monstrous about 19th century Britain, a country known for treating its own working class children badly, as well as for consuming and imposing catastrophic change upon other peoples in other places. There’s also, in the image of the grief-stricken queen mourning her lost husband, more than a hint of Victoria (who of course, in Aiken’s world, is never crowned).

What, then, of Arthur/Atahuallpa/Gwydion/Holystone? “The whole of Roman America apart from that is in a disgraceful condition of tyranny, anarchy, and misrule. Time it was the High King came back; someone who will be accepted by the people and set matters to rights,” says a friend and ally from a neighbouring kingdom. In one sense, Arthur is as much of an import as Ginevra. But he has been reborn here in South America, has an Inca name (not that we’re told that that’s what “Atahuallpa” is); he is even described as having “pale brown” skin. His followers are eager for him to reunite “Roman America”, and this is in keeping with the character’s British roots (as I’ve said, one of the Arthur myth’s functions is to bind Britain into a single territory), but the idea of a single ruler of possibly divine provenance uniting the empire also runs in tandem with our-world stories about Atahuallpa as the last Sapa Inca.

A benevolent combining of the two continents (Europe and South America) and their histories and politics, then? It’d be nice, but neither in our world nor the world of the book is any equal footing ever possible. The need for a king like Arthur is in keeping with the myth, sure, but it’s also framed within a rhetoric that imitates current constructions of South America as lawless:

And as for the things that go on in Biru, you’d never believe–brigandage, cannibalism–I believe they even sacrifice their grandmothers to Sul. Grandmothers! in the streets of Manoa you daren’t go out at night because robbers make off with the silver manhole covers; you could fall straight into the sewers and get washed away.

And there are those shrunken heads. Almost the only instance of Ginevra embracing anything local is in her fondness for these heads as decorative objects–we’re told also that “Foreign travelers buy many of them; they are one of Cumbria’s principal exports”, wording that does at least implicate those tourists (probably North American and European?) in the continuation of the practice. We know that Arthur, an enlightened monarch, plans to concern himself with “Dissident elements in Hy Brasil … abolish practice of head shrinking … joint action to exterminate the aurocs … improved conditions in the silver mines …”; fair enough, I suppose, but the continued invocation of South America as a space of headshrinking and lawlessness is still uncomfortable.

Which is to state the obvious, and say that however much this may be more complex than many British fantasies that unthinkingly appropriate other spaces,  The Stolen Lake‘s charming alternate history is of necessity drawing on an imperial vocabulary that means something.

March 10, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Great Wall

You knew I wasn’t going to let something this silly and this spectacular pass.

 

  • I’m fascinated by how this film negotiates its multiple audiences and contexts. I’ve (you may have heard!) spent a lot of time with adventure narratives, the genre in which where a white man travels into the unknown East, gets embroiled in a native battle and proves himself the most capable person there, probably romances a hot local girl, and eventually returns to his homeland wiser and better, having done important character development out over there. The Great Wall is this story all over again. It’s also a story about gormless foreigners who show up and gape at everything. It’s more the former, because William (Damon) is the character through whose eyes we see most of the action.
  • We also see some stuff from the perspective of his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a joy forever). There are … two? scenes that I can think of (maybe three if you count one very brief moment) where we see the Chinese characters doing anything without a European observer.
  • (I don’t know enough [or indeed anything] about Chinese cinema’s conventions for representing Europeans in cinema, or whether such conventions are in fact established, so I’m probably missing a lot)
  • Damon’s William is taken out onto the wall by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin. William has already seen Lin and the rest of her Crane Troops bungee jump harnessed from the wall (I know), armed with spears, in order to attack the invading army. Lin invites him to try the harness, even as one of the other women asks if they’ll be able to pull someone so heavy back up (we can see the English subtitles; William can’t). Lin “translates” her companion’s words as something complimentary and completely false; William grins fatuously. The audience giggles, of course this arrogant man thinks everyone’s saying nice things about him. Then: “I don’t think that’s what she said,” says William, still grinning, and we’re wrongfooted, suddenly we’re being laughed at (or, I suppose, have switched allegiance, depending on who the audience is and who they’re already more able to identify with).
  • William refuses to do the bungee jumping thing; Lin berates him for lacking (a word she translates as) faith, a quality which is important for working with other people (and raises the possibility that the Crane troops’ training is a series of corporate trust-building exercises). Later in the film, however, he does risk his life and jump off the wall (ziplining down a chain, so not quite the same extreme sport). When asked why, he throws Lin’s word back at her.
  • Or does he? The subtitles don’t suggest that there’s anything weird going on. I don’t have any faith in my recollection of the sound of a word heard only a couple of times in a language I don’t know to have a clear opinion here–and the two characters obviously have very different accents. But on one viewing I imagined William’s pronunciation sounded off enough to be something else entirely, and if that had been the case (it was probably not!) the film’s choice not to draw attention to it and to have Lin hear it with a straight face would be an interesting one–essentially putting the anglophone viewer in the position that we thought William was occupying in the earlier scene. Even if William has got the word broadly correct, given the number of cinematic traditions in which foreigners mangle language with their funny accents this scene feels notable for … not doing that? (Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Lagaan.)

 

cloaks

  • I’ve seen “silkpunk” used to describe China-influenced (usually partly-Western) fantasy, and I have various quibbles with the term. However, this film really does have cause to claim the genre, if it wants it. It begins with Damon and Pedro Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, on their way to attempt to trade (or steal) “black powder”–though they’re not, as far as I can tell, travelling along any of the silk routes there’s probably still a valid connection to be made re. trade, and it’s as traders that they first appear before the Chinese army. There’s a moment, late in the film, where the invading army are chased via the still-imperfect technology of (silk, presumably) hot air balloons. More than this, though, it’s a film filled with people in lightweight silk cloaks. Now, I’m aware that silk moves differently to the fantasy cloaks you see flapping dismally about in Northern Europe analogues–perhaps it’s because some of said Europeans were present, still in their sad thick cloaks, that I was constantly aware of that difference in movement.
  • I didn’t really know how to date this film, in part because it’s Not My Period, and in part because I suspect its own relationship to chronology is somewhat suspect. Better informed reviews have said it’s set during a version of the Song dynasty– possibly basing this conclusion on the fact that the capital city here is Bianliang and/or the widespread use of gunpowder (you can tell I’m getting all this off wikipedia, can’t you). Matters in Europe seem a bit more murky; William appears to have fought for “Harold versus the Danes” (cue comedy sound effect from a Danish friend to whom I subjected this), against the Franks, but also “for Spain”, which last suggests a rather 19th century understanding of European nationhood. (This is not the only oddly anachronistic thing about these characters–they also appear to have maps you can actually navigate with.) I enjoy this, in a way, because it feels like a way of treating European history with the cavalier, no research required, attitude that is so frequently applied to the rest of the world.
  • The plot: our protagonist and his companions, gormless, as I say, but good at fighting, are off Eastwards to find some of this magical black powder of which they have heard rumour. As they camp one night, a monster of some sort attacks them. They manage to sever an arm–it’s green and scaly. Some days later, they arrive at a (the) Great Wall, where they are imprisoned, and where everyone is alarmed to see the severed arm. It turns out a swarm* of giant telepathic lizards has been attacking North China every 60 years for the last two millennia. The current army has been preparing for this attack for decades, and the wall itself has been an integral part of its defence. William and Tovar have to decide whether to join this army and fight off the threat or steal all the gunpowder they can and get rich in Europe.
  • *We will be discussing my use of “swarm”.
  • Technology on the wall includes: hydraulic lifts, giant earhorns, giant scissors built into the walls.
  • After the first battle, the two Europeans arrive in the hall where lunch is being served freshly bathed, shaved and dressed. The entire room applauds–it’s not clear whether for the men’s prowess in battle or because their guests have discovered hygiene and should be encouraged to continue along this path.
  • At one point during the battle, Tovar (who is from Spain) uses a red cloak like a bullfighter to distract one of the taotei.
  • So, swarms. Early in the film we see the taotei dragging with them the corpses of their fallen companions as they retreat. My first thought, obviously, is “oh right, sentient beings with social structures and bonds.”And perhaps they do have these things. But very soon we learn that the whole army communicates telepathically with its queen, and to kill the queen is to immobilise the whole army. The taotei therefore are presented to us as a vast number of ancillaries to one queen, even though when severed from the link with her they seem to still be alive. I was feeling dubious about this presentation of vast numbers of people as undifferentiated hordes, and then saw that Max Brooks had been credited with some of the writing, and ah, right. Zombies.
  • So: monsters, opportunities for mass slaughter, and the sense that one isn’t killing an independently sentient thing. (Good monsters, though.)
  • Apparently the kingdom has been keeping several centuries of scholarship about the taotei–the scroll which they consult, we’re told, is 900 years old. This is pleasing.
  • The scroll adds further weight to a hypothesis–that magnets affect lizard telepathy. It’s not clear why they’ve waited centuries to try this out. But it’s a useful reminder that of course the writers of the scroll knew what magnets were, because otherwise they’re only mentioned in the context of William’s compassmaking skills. (He has maps, so a mere compass isn’t that impressive.)
    • My standards have been driven absurdly low, but I was pleased that no one in the film seemed in any way surprised when Commander Lin is put in charge of the Nameless Order, following the death of General Shao. I’m not sure how I feel about the movie’s more general treatment of gender–there are women in the army, and no one but Tovar seems particularly surprised to see them there, but they work only in the Crane troops (as killer trapeze artists/bungee jumpers) or as the drummers who communicate military commands along the wall. Only General Lin gets any actual speaking time, as far as I can remember, (apart from the one fellow soldier who speculates about William’s weight) and none of the other women are invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. Lin’s breastplate is, of course, the only one of the commanders’ to be breast-shaped. And yet, and yet. We’re left with the possibility of reading her relationship with William as entirely platonic (only Tovar’s reactions make it otherwise, and frankly I’m more interested in shipping Tovar/William), she’s a good fighter because she’s trained to be, she takes the final shot because she’s best qualified to do so.

great wall boob armour

  • The crane troop seems to be all women, and it’s implied that this is because they’re lighter than men on average. The women who spread information via drums are probably not subjected to this restriction, and it’s nice to know that the film leaves a niche for fat girls and it involves hitting things and making a loud noise.

 

September 10, 2016

Bulletpoints: Mohenjo Daro

Here are several thoughts on Mohenjo Daro, which was a cheesy, terrible mess which I loved.

I mean:

hats of mohenjo daro

 

  • The headgear. I will come back to this, but it’s a delight. Watching the trailer some months ago, I suggested that the prevalence of horns in the various headpieces on display were obviously the result of someone associated with the film having a vague memory (this is something I learnt in primary school) that animism of some sort was a big part of the Indus Valley civilisation. This was unfair; I’m sure researchers of some description were consulted. I’m not sure it matters though.

  • Tarsem Singh is in many ways a good reference point for my feelings about this film. It’s not as beautiful, or as visually sumptuous (now that the brilliant Eiko Ishioka is dead, are Singh’s films that beautiful? I haven’t seen the most recent), but at times it feels like it’s working in a similar register, and with a similar visual language. (It’s also less beautiful because the cgi is not exactly great–the flying crocodile in the trailer is hilarious. On the other hand, the mystical unicorn looks, as the friend with whom I watched it pointed out, like a goat drawn by Lisa Frank, which is surely enough to make the whole film worthwhile.) This is also one of the reasons I find attempts to read it from a viewpoint of historical accuracy rather po-faced–surely it’s missing the point to try and map this onto a solid historical narrative. It occupies a space between history, myth and fantasy, and its job is not to Accurately Represent The Past. The film’s title is a good example of this–with the opening credits we get a disclaimer about how obviously the real name of this city wasn’t Mohenjo Daro, but rather than make up a name that its residents might have called it, we’re going with the one that is familiar and that we all acknowledge is wrong. Likewise, the use of language: the movie opens with Sarman and his friends speaking a completely unfamiliar tongue (though they’re mostly yelling each other’s names while trying to fight a crocodile) before zooming in on one character’s mouth, and zooming out again to have him speak a form of Hindi–comprehensible to the audience, but with enough differences to prevent immersion, to remind us that we’re at an extra remove from reality. Or at least, that appears to me to be the intent–how successful it is is another matter entirely.
  • Having said all of which, the film’s gestures towards Real history, though obviously dubious af, are sometimes very satisfying. I genuinely enjoyed the sense of the city as a point of contact for multiple ancient cultures. The Sumerians (whose fault everything here is; also it’s capitalism’s fault), but also all the other names I half-recognised and have to look up. Various people have commented on the presence of horses in the film, but even there they’re presented as strange and foreign–the sort of exotic beast you might find if you travelled to a marketplace like this one, where strange things from strange lands that were previously unimaginable are suddenly here. In a recent conversation with Samira Nadkarni about another myth/fantasy film, I described a marketplace scene as something that might fit into Xena, Warrior Princess (this is not a bad thing, obviously) and I think that’s true here too, but we’re also presented with a vision of an interconnected ancient world, full of trade and travel and stories and material goods being exchanged across vast distances, rather than the rather isolationist view of the subcontinent that is about as far as a lot of school history goes. 
  • I’ve said that the film rests at the intersection of history, myth and fantasy. Particularly considering it’s directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also made Lagaan, it’s worth thinking about its mythic aspects, and what story it’s trying to tell. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that denies any sort of political agenda, and refuses to take a stance on the historical questions of the Aryan invasion theory or connections between the Indus Valley and what we know as Hinduism. Fair enough, that’s a lot to burden a film with (and can only end in riots). The problem is, that it then goes on to tell what is pretty straightforwardly a Hindu origin myth. The movie ends with Mohenjo Daro destroyed, and its survivors, led by our two heroes, wander the earth North India until they find and settle on the banks of the Ganga, guided in this decision by Sarman’s vision of the unicorn that originally led him to Mohenjo Daro. There’s even religious continuity, if one wants it–our other hero is Chaani, blessed by the river goddess and destined to save her people. We’ve moved from Tarsem Singh to Cecil B. DeMille. Nationalist and religious-nationalist myths may have their place (though they’re always suspicious), but when that place is a 21st century India, where Hindutva has state sanction, they’re particularly alarming. It’s worth, also, looking again at the trailer which insists that we’re in a time “Before the British Raj / Before the Mughals / Before Christ / Before Buddha”– with the puzzling exception of Buddhism, all of these are routinely positioned as corrupting outside influences, and their invocation here feels like a pretty blatant sort of nativism.
  • In a forthcoming review of A Flying Jatt (and what a joy to be able to type that phrase), Samira Nadkarni talks about a similar beleagured-natives-vs-invaders framing of national history in that film as well; and I suspect a wider survey would show these aren’t isolated instances.
  • As alarming as it is, this origin myth is at least coherent (is that good, though?). One of the several problems with Mohenjo Daro is the muddled-ness of most of its plot. Nothing that is confusing in and of itself happens, but the whole is so trope-y that individual plot elements end up standing in for larger story structures, and those larger structures simply cannot co-exist together. So we have Sarman, the village boy of mysterious parentage, who comes to the city, feels a strong emotional connection to it, learns that he’s the son of the deposed ruler, and confronts the tyrant. And we also have Chaani, the Chosen One blessed by a goddess, who is destined to change the future of the city and save its people. And we also have the proud city whose citizens angered nature and which was lost underwater. Essentially, then, we have two saviours and a city that can’t be saved. To no one’s surprise Chaani’s story is the one that gets shortchanged–the big moment that will change the future of the city is taken out of her hands. What makes it the more glaring is that Sarman also very clearly (see next bullet) doesn’t know what he’s doing, most of the time. There’s a possible version of this story in which Chaani, knowing the city and its problems better because that is her job, steps into her father’s role of kingmaker, and uses Sarman’s parentage to get things done. It’s not the version this film gave us.
  • There are moments in this film where Sarman’s bumbling, tongue-tied, dazed demeanour is clearly deliberate and meant to signify how out of his depth he is–most of these moments are when he’s interacting with Chaani (and Pooja Hegde is astonishingly pretty, I’d probably gawp awkwardly at her too). At other times, I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s Sarman’s bewilderment I’m looking at, or if Hrithik Roshan just has a really gormless resting face. It’s an important distinction, I feel, because if we’re really meant to view the hero of the film as  lost and incompetent (as opposed to just smitten by the pretty girl), that’s … quite a bold narrative choice, and rather makes you wonder if Mohenjo Daro is deliberately undercutting some of its tropes.
  • Because, as I’ve said, the film is multiple contradictory stories at once; it’s Return of the King and the Akallabeth and displaced people founding a new homeland. And I’m curious about the possibilities of juxtaposing those subgenres–what happens to the (for want of a better term) beats of the story? Twice in the film there are dramatic moments where characters (Maham and Jakhiro) are cut off mid-speech, and I find myself wondering if this narrative KLPD is something fundamental to the film; whether in refusing to let the comforting restoration-of-order story play out, cutting it off with Suddenly, the Flood!, that sense of interruption is enacted on a larger scale.
  • (I mean, I know it probably isn’t, but “this is a shit film” is so boring, and this film was so interesting)
  • The language thing has been much mocked, but I think if the film had been able to commit to that genuine sense of alterity throughout it might have worked. The not-quite-Hindi  does frequently remind you that it’s not-quite-Hindi with some added vowels (and the frequency with which everyone says “कदाचित,” for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like enough. I enjoyed the choice not to translate when, frequently, travellers to the city spoke different languages, though it hits a low point when Sarman has to gladiatorially fight two cannibals from (as far as we can tell?) Tajikistan, who for some reason wear animal skins, and whose conversation to each other the subtitles rendered as “tribal language”.
  • No, really. One of the moments of genuine weirdness about the film is this one, when we learn that two humans are just kept, and possibly starved, under the city, to be brought out when a dramatic fight scene is needed; suddenly we’re in this horrific Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas scenario and no one seems particularly bothered. Maham’s persecution of Sarman is clearly bad, but the fact that he has enslaved and unhumaned these two men, Bakar and Zokar, is just left there. Their attempts to fight Sarman (or die), their lack of (to the viewer) language mean that this casual unpersoning belongs to the film itself, not just Maham.
  • It’s a pity because in its own way, and rather too blatantly, this is trying to be an ethical film in the way something like Jupiter Ascending tries. Informed that he’s the new rightful ruler of the city, Sarman denies the role and suggests trying democracy. In the earlier gladiatorial scene, he refuses to kill the second of his two victims because he has won and can’t bring himself to commit a murder. The film commits itself to evacuating all of the residents of the city, other than Jakhiro, who refuses to leave, and Maham. (Maham is tied to a stake and left to drown. He manages to almost work himself free, just as the deluge comes.) At surface-level this is a film that wants to insist that the lives of people not its heroes are important. It’s a pity that it forgets this whenever those lives cease to be sufficiently Indian. 
  • Those final scenes. when the dam breaks and the city is flooded, are some of the best in the film. Jakhiro’s dancing about and welcoming death, Maham has just begun to think he might get out alive; everyone else is lined up on a hill watching and waiting. I know I said above that the final scenes and the Hindu origin myth they suggest made the film coherent, but they also rob this scene of much of its power. Imagine if mohenjo daro artichokeGowariker had ended it here–had ended this story of heroes and chosen ones on Sarman’s traumatised, shivering face as he watches the city drown.
  • And here, a final reminder of all that glorious headgear. Watching this with a friend was very rewarding–we couldn’t work out what Moonja’s hat reminded us of until she whispered “Jamiroquai!” Later, as Chaani had replaced her usual headdress for a gold one, she turned to me and asked, “is she wearing an artichoke?” Reader, I think she was. —>
April 9, 2016

In which Rhodes falls and doesn’t, Britain faces its imperial past and doesn’t, several large cats are featured, and nothing is propelled into outer space.

One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:

 

April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his steampunk tiger2birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)

November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.

Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)

Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:

 

V&A Conservation in Action: Playing Tippoo’s Tiger Part 2 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.

Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).

January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.

January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.

January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.

January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.

Steampunk tiger

February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.

March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.

It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.

Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.

miss jenny

 

March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.

 

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(That unpublished column from November)

I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.

There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.

tiger toy machineIn India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.

Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.

This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.

None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?

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Coda

March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)

October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.

 

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Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.

 

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May 29, 2014

Anita Nair, Idris: Keeper of the Light

Another book that I really wanted to be able to champion but ended up being very disappointed by. It’s about a jewel-eyed man named Idris, so I feel like I have exercised great restraint in not illustrating this post with a picture of Mr Elba as Heimdall.

I have a short review of the book in this past weekend’s edition of The Hindustan Times (and below).

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The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction.

Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liason with a young woman. Twelve years later he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets. The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness—frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom, beauty and nobility (and superior height).

Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced (the maps drawn on the endpapers are particularly gorgeous), with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

December 19, 2013

Nicola Griffith, Hild

From this weekend’s column.

One of the many pleasing things about Hild is that large parts of it are set quite near where I am now (or it feels that way–England isn’t very big). It is possible that I highlighted those bits in my ebook with such incisive critical comments as “represent!”

 

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Is it still a biography when an entire book must be extrapolated from mere scraps of detail? That’s about all we know of the woman who would come to be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby; a few, scant details in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We know that her father was a nephew of Edwin of Northumbria and that he was poisoned, that she was baptized by Paulinus of York, and that twenty years later she became a nun, eventually becoming the abbess of a monastery at Whitby. It’s not much to go on, yet Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a novel of close to 600 pages and it ends decades before the most well-documented part of Saint Hilda’s life.

So if it’s not biography is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Griffith is known mainly as a science fiction writer, and she has claimed elsewhere that in creating this book she drew on techniques learned from that genre. The world of Hild is meticulously built up from what we know of the material and social culture of its time; it is remote enough from our own world to seem completely alien (there have been few popular culture narratives of the early middle ages to familiarise them), yet it makes complete sense.

Griffith’s Hild is the clever daughter of a clever mother, taught from her youngest days to observe (“quiet mouth, bright mind,” her mother Breguswith’s constant advice to her). Breguswith claims to have foretold her daughter’s greatness, and from the beginning of her life Hild is believed to have supernatural powers. Whether her gift for seeing “the pattern” in things is divine in origin is both unclear and irrelevant; she becomes a valued advisor to Edwin. As her friend, an Irish priest, tells her, her mother has carved out for her a space inaccessible to many women in her circumstances; she’s in a position to speak and be listened to, to influence the larger political, social, economic changes taking place around her in ways other than through strategic marriage alliances.

And women and women’s work are at the centre of Hild. In the court both Hild and her mother subtly work to influence events, as does Edwin’s wife Æthelburg. But we also see women weaving cloth, doing manual labour, trading, tending to cattle, brewing mead and creating medicine. History, and historical fiction, often tend to treat as important only the more masculine spheres of activity. Here, battles are fought but we only see them when Hild is present at them. The political life of the court may be dominated by men, but a few powerful women are always present. And the centrality of women to this society, particularly their economic contribution, is never ignored or dismissed. Female friendship is elevated in the form of gemæcce, a sort of formalised partnership between two women. Women are free to have sex, with men or with other women (one of many striking dissimilarities between this seventh century Britain and twenty-first century India), without anyone seeming particularly surprised.

Perhaps Griffith’s greatest achievement here is in not giving Hild a modern mind. She may, as a result of her gift or her mother’s training, know more than most of those around her and she may manipulate events, but if she can discern the “pattern” of her world she’s rarely placed above or outside it. Other than one rather too pat moment when she describes Christ as merely another name for the pattern (religion until this point in the novel has worked in marvellous, complex ways), she thinks as a person raised in her world.

Hild is immersive and feminist, and believable. Whether this is historical fiction or fantasy (and Griffith suggests that perhaps there needn’t be a distinction between the two) it’s complex and intelligent.

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April 17, 2013

Indira Goswami, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar

Translated by Aruni Kashyap, whose first book (out this year) I am genuinely looking forward to.

I wrote about this for last weekend’s column. I’m still not sure what to make of this book, but I think I liked it.

 

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I had never heard of the Bodo heroine Thengphakhri until I came across Aruni Kashyap’s translation of Indira Goswami’s last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar. Apparently I’m not alone in this—although the character is mentioned in folk tales she has largely been forgotten, even in Assam.

As a result, not much is known of this legendary figure, and Kashyap’s introduction to the book suggests that Goswami had to weave together scraps of stories from local folklore with historical research. What we do know about her is that she was a Bodo woman from the Bijni Kingdom, and probably the first female revenue collector (or tehsildar) and that she would become a freedom fighter.

The first woman tehsildar, the only woman in the area to ride a horse, stunningly beautiful and the owner of a bronze sword, all of these mark Thengphakhri out as a heroic figure, as indeed she is. But Goswami chooses not to have her novel follow the trajectory of the traditional hero’s story. The bronze sword of the title is never used here, and the book’s focus is never on Thengphakhri’s anti colonial activities (surely the most obvious plot for a story about a freedom fighting heroine).

Because The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar isn’t really a hero narrative at all, but something quieter and more introspective. Set in the late 1800s during the years in which Thengphakhri is a revenue collector for the British, Goswami’s novel depicts a society in which the British presence may be cause for unease, but individual Britishers and the East India Company still inspire loyalty, gratitude and admiration among many. If their taxes are exploitative and their increasing control over the region worrying, they also protect the region from Bhutan.

For much of this story Thengphakhri is depicted as an observer rather than an actor. Her position as an official working for the British marks her as something as an outsider within her community. She has close friendships with two British men, and is particularly affected by the death of her mentor, Hardy.

Hardy, Macklinson and the other British characters in this novel are never mere villains and it’s perfectly possible to see them as decent men making a genuine effort to do what is right. Yet the British presence in the novel is a sinister one, made doubly so by the fact that much of the time the Indian characters from whose perspective we read have swallowed the party line. It’s Macklinson who teaches Thengphakhri to be hard-hearted while collecting revenue—and Thengphakhri’s silence will implicate her later when we see a family ruined by their inability to pay the state what it claims is its due. This growing unease with the role of the British is not just played out publicly, then, as revolts and raids increase and overly-political men are ‘accidentally’ shot; it is played out privately within the heads of its characters. And we are only privy to a fraction of those thoughts.

A big part of what makes the novel interesting, then, is what it doesn’t tell us. Beyond a couple of fleeting references to a husband we know nothing about Thengphakhri’s status as a widow. We don’t see her in the moment when she finally chooses her side. And we don’t see her in what is arguably the most heroic phase of her life. As a result, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is odd, and often abrupt. Filled with descriptions of the beauty of the local landscape it’s also surprisingly impressionistic.

Aruni Kashyap’s translation feels a little uneven. The vivid imagery of the novel comes across clearly, but the interactions between characters feel awkward and stilted, as if everyone were speaking in a language unfamiliar to them. None of this hides the fact that The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is nuanced and consistently surprising, and I’m glad it’s finally available in English.

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