The Consul’s File
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 209 pp., $8.95
The Ice Age
by Margaret Drabble
Knopf, 295 pp., $8.95
“The war did not destroy the English—it fixed them in fatal attitudes. The Japanese were destroyed and out of that destruction came different men; only the loyalties were old—the rest was new.” Thus the thirty-six-year-old New Englander Paul Theroux, pursuing his studies of the post-Imperial British, this time in Malaysia, Somerset Maugham country. The short stories in The Consul’s File should be popular. How to cope, or more precisely how not to cope, with losing an empire—for an updated Somerset Maugham the subject has everything: nostalgia, pathos, irony, and (not too frequently of course, but the more tellingly) gusts of delicious guilt and right-thinking anticolonialism. Even the appropriate tone, scenario, and idiom are common stock—credits to Graham Greene. Given these advantages, an adroit practitioner like Paul Theroux could hardly go wrong. Nor does he; The Consul’s File can be recommended as a thoroughly good read. And yet it is, or it ought to be, intolerably depressing. Near the end the narrator, an American winding up an unnecessary consulate in an unimportant town, sums up about Malaysia:
Is it possible to put down roots here? I don’t think so. The Chinese won’t, the Tamils can’t, the Malays pretend they have them already, but they don’t. Countries like this are possessed on the one hand by their own strangling foliage, and on the other by outside interests—business, international pressures (as long as the country has something to sell or the money to buy). Between jungle and viability, there is nothing—just the hubbub of struggling mercenaries, native and expatriate, staking their futile claims.
OK, this is the narrator’s voice, not the author’s. But none of the lives that the stories introduce us to—of Anglicized Malays and Indians, Americanized Chinese, Americans passing through, British (and the odd American) planters, doctors, and government surveyors and so on—ever escapes this dispiriting diagnosis of their situation as futile, insignificant, and undignified. Even the human and marital relations among them, not just the inter-racial ones either, are blighted and doomed for the same inexorable reasons. Theroux has no difficulty keeping his distance from Maugham (“…he encouraged expatriates to pity themselves. It is the essence of the romantic lie”); but one wonders about a greater expert in the romantic lie, Conrad, who certainly knew the lie inside out but knew also that sometimes the lie was necessary and could be heroic.
Of course the author of Lord Jim and An Outcast of the Islands did not have the dubious advantage of knowledgeable sub-Marxist journalism to tell him that the economic laws which determine colonial and ex-colonial dependencies are indeed inexorable, and reach everywhere. And so he could find for some of his characters a margin of freedom and dignity, whereas in Theroux’s book the one character who comes near attaining to either is, significantly and sourly, a Japanese. The only shaft of light that breaks in upon the bleak squalor of this …