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 …

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