Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, 1924

I remember being--what, fourteen? Fifteen? When I picked a library book from out of the pile that was in our room, and saw the words on the hardbound spine: A Passage to India. "What the hell is this?" I asked my Evil Twin Brother, "A travel guide?" "It's a novel," he replies. "Fiction. Actually quite good."

Twenty-five or so years and a David Lean adaptation later, I finally caught up with the novel, and yes, it's "actually quite good." Brings to mind Jean Renoir's The River and Anthony Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy in the way the foreign narrator (or storyteller) is able to evoke the sights, sounds, colors, feelings of another country, respecting its otherness at the same time he provides a fascinating view.

If I remember right, Renoir focused on British expatriates living in India, with maybe a few supporting Indian characters to round out the cast; same with Burgess, who also used a more satiric approach. Forster' novel has its share of humor (I'm thinking most of all of Dr. Godbole, who nimbly pads away with many of the scenes he's in), but there's also a magisterial confidence in the way Forster is able to inhabit the mind of Dr. Aziz (the novel's nominal protagonist), also the way he's able to sketch Aziz's lightly comical interactions with fellow Muslims (he can't relate to their passionate anti-Imperialism [at least not at first]), Hindus (he's suspicious and a bit perturbed at their odd [Godbole in particular] way of looking at things), his evolving relationship with the British (he desperately wants to be a friend, but is acutely aware of their contempt)--a remarkable achievement, really, considering how difficult the task is (Who has succeeded at something similar? Plenty of examples, I'm sure, but the first one that pops into mind is Graham Greene's whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory--made into The Fugitive, a much superior film adaptation to my mind, and by John Ford and Gabriel Figueroa, no less).

It's on its most basic level a withering account of racism in British India. Marvelous all the details Forster gets right (or as right as I can tell)--the way, for example, the British women seem more rigid in their attitudes than the men; the way the British pounce on any apparent lapse and hold it up as an example of Muslim illogic or duplicity (a late response to a summons) or even carelessness (a missing collar stud), when in truth matters are more complex; the excruciatingly funny--and pathetic--bridge parties, ostensibly (as implied by their name) meant to "bridge" the gap between Indian and British, only to emphasize the depth and breadth of it to everyone attending.

The rape trial is a comedy of horrors: the startling way the British community quickly and instantly (almost reflexively) comes together--like pioneers pulling their wagons into an embattled circle--at the news of a sexual threat; the odd detail of old Mrs. Moore's role in the alleged crime brought out, blown up, turned into local folklore (she's briefly deified as "Esmiss Esmoor"); the underplayed slapstick of having the community's most notable figures stand on the court's one-foot-tall platform with the complainant (Adel Quested, probably the only innocent involved in all this) as a show of support.

But the novel's so much more than its (accurate, acerbic) portrait of colonial era racism. It's as beautiful an evocation of a land through alien eyes (Forster's India ranks up there with Conrad's Africa, Greene's Mexico, Burgess' Malaysia) and it does something quite extraordinary, I think: where most writers would home in on a rape trial and its verdict as the novel's centerpiece and climax, Passage instead presents a number of storylines and zeroes in on the least likely thread--the friendship that develops between the accused (Dr. Aziz) and the town's school principal, Mr. Cyril Fielding. It's this friendship, more than the trial and its possible disastrous impact on Aziz (a lifetime in a British jail for rape, for starters) that provides the momentum, the pull, even the thrill that keeps one reading--not "will Aziz come through all right?" or "will Adela keep up this monstrous charade?" or "will the Indians show up those stuck-up Brits?" but "will Aziz and Fielding clear up their misunderstandings, and become friends again?"

Amazing how Forster is able to convey the effortless intimacy that can sprout between two sympathetic souls--and, conversely, how said intimacy can vanish for indefinable reasons (a misunderstanding; the steady venomous work of other, more jealous friends) only to spring up again, as unlikely as ever, at a later date. I'm tempted to say Forster's homosexuality at that time and age must have forced him to cultivate such platonic friendships, but the effortless way it speaks to many readers--the way it thrills some chord inside them, me included--makes me wonder if he didn't create something more universal.

I haven't seen Lean's film in a long time, and I do remember liking it quite a bit, but there's this crucial point where the film fails the novel, or fails to achieve the novel's greatness--the Lean of Lawrence of Arabia unable to resist the big drama scenes, and focusing on the trial, the rest of the book seemingly more like an afterthought, pinned on afterwards to forestall any accusations of infidelity to the source material. If Lean had taken the riskier route (a choice the Lean of Brief Encounter might have made), he could have followed the novel's meandering path more faithfully, tried dramatize it within the confines of a two-and-a-half or three-hour film without putting audiences to sleep (as is, I imagine the very title--can you really blame me for mistaking it for a travel book?--is not one to inspire passionate interest).

But even more than the sharp satire, lyrical evocations, delicate delineation of various relationships, there's the mysticism, the sense that Forster was constantly looking beneath and beyond the surface of things (and may have had more inside information--that's the impression I got reading the book--on the underpinnings of existence than any of us might suspect). Maybe one of my favorite moments involved Aziz trying to winkle out of Dr. Godbole the secret he suspects the man is withholding about the Marabar Caves; try as he might, though, Godbole refuses to respond, refuse even to admit he's refusing to respond, or that anything at all is the matter--as Forster puts it "the comparatively simple mind of the Mohammedan was encountering Ancient Night" (love the capitalization, the sense you get of a forbidding Hardyesque allegorical figure suddenly popping up in the midst of a sharply scribed comedy of manners). It's the slightest of omissions, a tiny little knot of nothingness--a foretaste, of course, of the Marabar Cave's mysterious echo.

That echo and Forster's evocation of it and what it means lies at the very heart not just of the novel, I suspect, but of Forster's philosophy, point of view, metaphysics. If, as someone proposed, one of the novel's main theme is "the unity of all things," and if the echo represents the most terrifying consequence of said theme (its single most terrible quality being that it reduces all sounds--from a simple clap to the recital of a beautiful poem--to one level, to the same massively lifeless roar), one wonders, perhaps even trembles, at Forster's view of things. The novel isn't all that dark, though there are passages where some characters undergo fearsome struggles, but that echo threatens to swallow everything (the satire, the setting, the extraordinary characters) into a single featureless "bo-um;" it does succeed in swallowing poor Mrs. Moore and all her idealism (of all the characters her fate is perhaps the real tragedy).

Preceding that echo is the my opinion far more disturbing (not to mention far beyond Lean's considerable powers of filmmaking to evoke) image, of a completely enclosed cavern--or not so much a cavern but a hollow egg, an empty space that "mirrors its own darkness in all directions infinitely." A mischievous reference to the central image in Forster's one science fiction story "The Machine Stops," perhaps (in that story, people are encapsulated--and enfeebled--by living all their lives in fully automated wombs, or eggs)? Or an awful summation of Foster's fatalism, his awareness of dark despair trapped inside unfeeling stone for all eternity--hell (or an unsuspected heaven) in an eggshell, in effect? I remember Kurosawa Kiyoshi's vision of the afterlife in Kairo (Pulse, 2001)--was Forster's echo and egg chamber something similar? Could--stray thought here--Kyoshi be the perfect choice to remake Forster once more on the big screen, at least when it comes to this crucial scene?

Whatever. A great novel, sure, by a great writer; I was enthralled.


Quentin said...

So you finally got to read A Passage to India. Yes, even in my relative naivete, I did sense it was quite a good book (though my favorite Forster is his short fiction, "The Machine Stops".) It's nice to know that though I get the impression you're more cutting edge than I am (for instance, when did you tell me to watch Ranma 1/2? 1996? 1997? I'm obsessed with Ranma NOW, almost a decade late)there are a few bits I've seen or read ahead of you. As if this is a contest, or if "being ahead" is anything at all.

Your Evil Twin Brother

Noel Vera said...

Few more things, tho--didn't you mention to me a terrific Nickelodeon cartoon show years back? Well, I think I finally caught up with that, too.

Bob said...

Hate to intrude lengthily on a family colloquy here on classic novels and animation, but just can't resist chiming in on "Passage." I think I had it assigned to me both twice in college (or was it once in high school and once in college), and was one of my all time favorite novels. I only say "was" because that was a couple of decades back now, though much of the novel's memory remains clear to me. Still, I tend not to reread books because of time...and I've had "Howard's End" on my "to be read" list since that movie came out.

One thing that struck me was how "Passage to India" seemed to be completely free of any racism. Kind of remarkable after reading novel after novel from the 19th and pre-WWII twentieth century in my English classes where almost inevitably somebody -- nonwhites, women, gays almost inevitably, and usually Jews -- took it in the shorts. It also seemed to have some interesting resonances with the U.S. racial controversies of the 1980's, particularly the Tuwanna Brawley case -- which turned out to be a kind of Bizaro world version of the Aziz-Quested case.

When I found out that Forster was gay, I was almost kind of saddened. I would have been more impressed in a way if Forster had not been a member of any oppressed minority group.

Well, that's it -- but you really like Ford's "The Fugitive"? Eh..the less I say about that probably the better. (Figueroa was an freaking amazing DP, I'll give you that.)

Noel Vera said...

Ah well--nobody's perfect.

Yes, I do like The Fugititve. I'm aware it's a highly sanitized version of Greene's novel, and that it's hardly popular with the critics (Damien Bona expressed dislike for it too), but what is there I think is really quite beautiful, and captures much of the book's anguish. And I think Fonda's amazing--sure he's tall and Anglo-Saxony, but he has that rabbit-caught-in-headlights look down pat (him and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil (I've got reasons for liking him, too) would be my favorite White Man in Blackface Performances).