Against Exotic Chic, Dark Tale of Family Pain, Self-Deception

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From Joseph Conrad and William Somerset Maugham (and, indeed, many other Western writers) we inherited the enduring image of the bemused colonial around the turn of the 20th century - a tea planter, perhaps, luxuriating on some tropical verandah, sipping his gin-sling before joining in a game of billiards, dreaming of wealth and a splendid future, while viewing the natives around him only as manifestations of his own inner fantasies or fears.

Such writers used Malaya, India, and the heart of Africa to suit their metaphorical purposes. After all, in a fictional jungle, certain oppositions took on even greater clarity: dark versus light, primitivism versus civilization, innocence versus experience.

Somerset Maugham, for one, dabbled in a kind of exotic chic, a whiff of the humid tropics every bit as important to him as the elements of plot and character.

As the 20th century progressed, more and more writers of the East began telling their own stories, of course, but many of them, especially those from South Asia, have chosen to indulge in a homegrown exotic chic. Their fiction is filled with mangoes, jasmine, sandalwood, spices, lotuses, conjurers, and the like, with the swirl of colors and aromas so heady you feel like fainting.

I mention all of this because "The Hamilton Case," aside from being a splendid, intelligent, and at times mesmerizing work of fiction, is one of the best arguments against this false exotic chic I've read.

Its author, Michelle de Kretser, is a Sri Lankan who has lived in Australia for more than 30 years. And her novel stands in opposition not only to the overheated prose of a certain class of South Asian writer, but also to the cliches of Western literature, a stereotypical English meadow, for example, dotted with buttercups and sunshine. In this regard, Ms. de Kretser is indiscriminate. Overuse is the death of all good images.

"The Hamilton Case," set in Ceylon during the years of British rule and afterward, really consists of two narratives. The first hundred pages or so represent the memoirs of the novel's principal character, Sam Obeysekere, a Ceylonese prosecutor whose love for England and the English ("A formidable race. I miss them to this day") is equaled only by his disregard for his own countrymen, especially those sarong-clad nationalists who clamor for independence and the expulsion of the island's Tamils back to India.

Because of Sam's very English temperament, he is subjected to a fair bit of good-natured abuse as a boy. One schoolyard taunt his rival Jaya flings his way is: "Obey by name, Obey by nature."

At Oxford, Sam longs for English girls, and as desperately as he wants to win their favor, he cannot understand why they ignore him, those girls who have presumably read the same English poems and novels as he has.

His great accomplishment in the field of law, he has us believe, is his prosecution of the Hamilton case, in which an English planter is murdered in a Ceylonese jungle on a moonless night. Sam fancies himself as a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, and his sleuthing in the Hamilton case, dubious as it might be, points to an Englishman named Taylor as the guilty party, rather than to the Ceylonese laborers whom most people suspect.

But despite the importance of the case, the affair takes up a relatively small part of Sam's narrative. His project is autobiography. And as he lingers over the events of his life, his cool Edwardian narrative voice is as deceptive as that of the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day."

Only slowly does Sam reveal himself to be an impostor. Through this flawed and complex character do we realize that Ms. de Kretser's themes have as much to do with anti-imperialism as they do with anti-exoticism.

Sam only hints at the unspeakable events of his early family life, though even the elegance of his words cannot conceal the truth for long. …