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Backstage in the Tropics

Serendip. Its exquisite placement—poring over the map in school, we used to think it was like a precious pendant suspended from the necklace shape of India, lying on the breast of the Indian Ocean—and the very name of the island conjure up a vision of an earthly paradise. So it must have seemed to the Arab seafarers who named it on coming upon it in their hazardous voyages, with its luxuriant vegetation, flamboyant wildlife, treasure trove of gems, and long surf-washed coastline. The words “earthly paradise” are not idly used either since in Muslim legend it was to earthly paradise that Adam and Eve were exiled after their expulsion from the heavenly Eden.

The literature that has come from there has supported the idea. There is the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, about the travels and the adventures of the eponymous heroes, which led Horace Walpole, in 1754, to coin the term “serendipity” for the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. John Barth played with the link between the word and its etymology in his book of 1991, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. In a more realistic vein, there was Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which, idiosyncratic and ultimately tragic as it might have been, entranced its readers with its gorgeous embellishments. There was also his Anil’s Ghost (2001), which led the reader into some magical grove where mysterious secrets were uncovered.

And now there is Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case. It ratifies every dream one might have of a tropical landscape with its account of a rich and eccentric family and its complex and serpentine history. She is, however, as smart and up-to-date as can be about the world of postmodernism, perfectly aware of all its conventions while capable of mocking them even as she uses them.

Prominent in the novel is the disreputable and scandalous Maud, the mother of the main character, Sam Obeysekere, who is incarcerated in the family mansion in the jungle by her son and driven by her loneliness and silence into obsessively writing letters to everyone she has ever known. She transforms the nightmare world she occupies into a romantic fiction; in her letters bougainvillea is “unfailingly rampant,” the jungle “teemed with life,” the evening air is “filled with the scent of jasmine,” and the monsoon rain is “a silvery shower.” The author comments that “it was not her intention to deceive. There is an old instinct, at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque.”

Another of her characters, Shivanathan, a provincial judge whose career has not gone well and who has turned to writing fiction, puts together a collection of short stories called, inevitably, Serendipity, and subtitled Island Epiphanies. Sam Obeysekere, who has known the author, checks it out of the library, knowing

there will be breasts that resemble ripe mangoes…. Hair lustrous with coconut oil will alternately ripple and cascade. And I very much fear there’ll be a barefoot old woman in spotless white who will eat curries with her fingers and perform simple devotions to her gods.

For all his cynicism, he laments that “I’m part of it all too, like it or not, I’m as authentic as any bally mango.”

De Kretser, a Sri Lankan who has lived since the age of fourteen in Australia, is not herself immune to the allure of the exotic even if she does not succumb to its clichés. Still, it is impossible to describe her prose as anything but rich, luxuriant, intense, and gorgeous. Reading it is like taking a walk through a tropical hothouse where orchids are “an extravagance of bruised kisses,” cockroaches are as “glossy as dates,” a wasp’s nest is “a pale stucco mansion,” and “leaves mocked grav-ity, rising into the air. There they resolved themselves into a billow of jade butterflies.”

The tropics and the legend of the exotic East that have inspired so much (mostly second-rate) fiction are but one of the influences on—or targets of—her writing. There is also the blithe between-wars hilarity of P.G. Wodehouse to be detected in her characterization of Sam’s father, known to him as Pater and to Maud, his wife, as Ritzy (in fact they first met at the Savoy; using the name of the wrong hotel “revealed her disdain for detail”); and we have the speech used by the fast set of Colombo (of a Buddhist: “Lectured me on the taking of life and whatnot. Blighter’s bleeding me to death in the courts but that’s different, it seems”). Also, the strict narrative rules of the detective fiction of the time are followed in the unraveling of the Hamilton case—the murder of an English planter—when the least likely suspect is found by the court to be the murderer. Yet at the end of the novel, one of the judges, brought up in the tradition, casts doubt on the verdict:

Twenty-five years have passed since I read Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…. Yet I saw that I had—quite unconsciously—plucked out the crucial elements of Mrs. Christie’s plot and grafted them onto the Hamilton case…. I saw that I had fallen for an old enchantment. I had mistaken the world for a book.

But by placing this revised version of the book at the end of the case, he admits:

I’ve lent it credence. We believe the explanation we hear last. It’s one of the ways in which narrative influences our perception of truth. We crave finality, an end to interpretation, not seeing that this too, the tying up of all loose ends in the last chapter, is only a storyteller’s ruse. The device runs contrary to experience, wouldn’t you say? Time never simplifies—it unravels and complicates. Guilty parties show up everywhere. The plot does nothing but thicken.

So does de Kretser take the literary traditions of the novels from the 1920s to the 1940s and turn them into the postmodern fiction of our times—mocking, cynical, sophisticated, and bitterly aware. Like Hari Kunzru in The Impressionist, she employs all the literary devices of empire from Rudyard Kipling to Somerset Maugham to Paul Scott, and then lays bare the backstage truth to disillusion the reader. It is a dazzling performance.

Until one grasps her motives and intentions, one might wonder at her lending so much weight to the somewhat commonplace tea plantation scandal that gives her novel its title: after the English planter is found murdered, two coolies on the estate are arrested as suspects, then another planter’s wife—English, pregnant, and, in her pastel outfit and pallor, the very symbol of the Empire’s purity—gives testimony and, in a scene of courtroom melodrama, accuses her own husband of the crime, the first time an Englishman in the colony has been accused of murder. He is found guilty and condemned to hang.

One of the jurors—“British to a man, shop keepers, shipping agents, an engineer”—tells a newspaper reporter that

he had been tormented all weekend by the delicate problem of how a sentence of death might be carried out. That a native should hang an Englishman was unthinkable. But could one count on the government, always unreliable over essentials, to go to the expense of bringing in a hangman from Home? That uncertainty alone was enough, said the juror, to ensure that he, for one, would not have returned a Guilty verdict.

In the event, the condemned man lets him out of his dilemma by performing the deed himself, in his prison cell.

This tawdry melodrama not only gives the novel its title but allows de Kretser to use the device of shifting interpretations to keep up the tension and the suspense to the very last page. It also gives the novel its curious construction: Part I is told in the first-person voice of Sam Obeysekere, the lawyer who brings about the acquittal of the coolies and the guilty verdict on the English planter; Part II adheres to his point of view but the voice changes to the third person; in Part III we are presented an omniscient point of view; and in Part IV there is a shift to the epistolary style, allowing us to hear another view of what happened, that of the principal judge. Although it is the last we hear, it is not conclusive. The author points out that “history, like any other verdict, is not a matter of fact but a point of view.”

Sam Obeysekere entertains no such doubts and vacillations. It is his nature, and his training, to pursue clues in a logical fashion, subject them to reason, and arrive at a conclusion. As a student in England, he had exulted that

I was living in the heyday of the English murder…. I was most impressed by the cold brilliance with which the great English murderers planned their crimes, the slow maturation of the project in logic and cunning over weeks and months. It was quite the converse of the way things were done at home. There, lack of premeditation was the rule…. There was no art to such crimes. The psychology of the murderers was as simple and dull as the alphabet. In many cases the killer made no effort whatsoever to avoid detection and was apprehended at once by the authorities. It struck me as a thoroughly brutish state of affairs.

From the art of murder it was a short step to murder as art. It was at this time that I discovered the complex pleasures of the detective novel. I was soon immersed in Conan Doyle and E.C. Bentley, and the early works of the sublime Mrs. Christie…. I loved to sharpen my wits on the ingenious puzzles devised by their authors, and may say without vanity that once or twice I succeeded in cracking them before the solution was revealed in the final pages. Mod-esty compels me to add that the unraveling of the Hamilton case… probably owed more to a mind steeped in the strategies of detective fiction than to the genius with which I was credited by so many commentators.

What is ironic, and uncharacteristic, about his handling of the case is that it was an Englishman he condemned. He was brought up to see the English as his superiors, even his leaders, precisely the kind of person the British regime had hoped to create. He came from a family of mudaliyars, men who were traditionally assistants to rulers, the Kandyan kingdom to begin with, then the colonial administration for whom they were “record-keepers, …intermediaries and interpreters,” and dealt with “native disputes concerning land, contracts and debts.” This earned them rewards from the Europeans—the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British—and they acquired vast tax-free estates and, sometimes, knighthoods. Unfortunately, Sam’s grandfather, Sir Stanley, disgraced himself by plunging into a lake to rescue an English girl who, while out rowing, had fallen overboard. This was considered such an outrage that the girl’s companion brought her oar down on his skull. “He drowned, of course,” and the girl was rescued by some Scottish engineers who happened to be present. The English thought Sir Stanley’s act proof of the Ceylonese being “prone to exaggeration.” Murmurs of anti-British sentiment among the Sinhalese were quelled by Sam’s great-uncle Willy writing a letter to the Times of Ceylon “regret-ting his brother’s impetuousness” and absolving the English oar-wielder of all blame. Michelle de Kretser’s humor tends to the darkest shade. She has Sam inform us that Great-Uncle Willy never did get the OBE he yearned for:

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