Friday, 18 July 2008

Heat and Dust

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Published by Penguin

I knew the name of this author long before I'd picked up any of her books. She was a writer who collaborated on the famous Merchant-Ivory adaptations of Forster's Howards End and A Room with a View - films I have a lot of time for. And, contrary to some literary criticism, this book does have similarities to A Passage to India; in terms of its setting, its theme of 'the journey' and suppression - both political and sexual.

I'm not sure if I enjoyed this book, but I read it a couple of weeks ago and certain descriptions and ideas have stayed with me.

I think it might be dated. The main character is a strong but awkward English woman, a scholar of some kind, trying to find evidence of her shamed great-aunt, who had travelled to India in the days of Empire. The 'present' is the 1970s, however, which creates extra distance for the reader. The narrator is trying to understand her aunt's past and the times in which she lived. I'm trying to figure that out too (as the reader these are obviously ideas that the author wants me to think about) but I'm also having to consider the 1970s, a time long gone and as strange to me now as the 1920s were to the protagonist.

Jhabvala was writing in India, where she lived with her husband during the 1970s, about the things she saw and heard - and these are the sections which work best. The small details in characterisation have a definite ring of truth about them.

The book can't help when it was written, but it is telling that this 'classic' feels strangely out of time. The Western (the author is German) viewpoint of British rule in India was different then (1970s) to how we see it now. And this is where the problem lies.

Jhabvala has been criticised for depicting a rather traditional, stereotypical view of the Raj period, and I kind of agree with this. The shame of it is, her excellent characterisation and story-telling in the present are also tainted with these out-dated viewpoints - you can't quite get past the idea that the narrator is just another tall, educated, Western observer of 'these people' and their 'exotic' customs.

The great-aunt's dilemma and its resolution doesn't feel real at all. The present day narrator's journey and search feels more real, but by the end I was wondering what the point of it was. If the picture the author paints of the present (1970s) India is a detailed sketch, created in the open air with a full view of her subject, the picture she paints of the 1920s is a stilted chocolate box oil on canvas, conceived in a dark studio.

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