Sunday, February 04, 2024

6. The Tribe that Lost its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

I mean look at this beauty!
Well this was a massive disappointment.  I loved the Cruel Sea and over the years I had several other of Monsarrat's books that I've discovered.  I also have a certain affection for him having also migrated to Quebec and was a minor literary name here back in the day.  I also had found Richer than all his Tribe, the sequel to this book first and had been looking for this one for a few years and finally found this beautiful Pan edition.  So I was quite excited to read these two.

My legion of readers will know that I am quite capable of enjoying a good adventure even if I don't always agree with the politics behind them.  Most of these post-war manly British adventure guys were often quite conservative.  This book, though, was straight out racist and worse (well not really worse but it pissed me off more), couched the racism in some of the most extreme pax britannica ideology that I have possibly ever read.  Basically, if it wasn't for the British coming in and imposing some civilization on these savages in Pharamaul (the invented island nation of the west coast of Africa) and India, Burma, etc. they would be killing themselves and others and also not advancing their economy.  This argument is presented repeatedly throughout the narrative, so that even if I agreed with it, I would have found it annoying.  Monsarrat wrote this after leaving his posting in South Africa and I can only guess that he had a lot of resentment and was using this to burn it off.

What makes the racism and simplistic pro-colonialism thesis worse is that much of the book is a generally scathing critique, almost to the point of parody, of many of the institutions which make up the expat world in colonial countries.  The media is satirized ruthlessly, primarily in the form of a rabble-rousing British reporter for a leftist newspaper (owned by a lord, of course) who sets the whole thing off by quoting the returning king out of context.  There are also caricatures of the American journalist who is critical of everything British, the ex-soccer jock super racist South African and the presumably lesbian American photojournalists whose every shoot is to amplify the shocking.  Likewise, many of the Brits themselves working either in the ministry in London or locally on Pharamaul, especially the wives are broad caricatures.  And these caricatures, while broad, are thoroughly done and accurate.  Was Monsarrat so caught up in his ideology that he couldn't apply this same critical lens to the colonial structure itself, which is so obviously the cause of all the trouble.

The story has many characters.  The main "hero" is young David Bracken, who has just been posted to Gamate, the central village in Pharamaul.  He meets lovely secretary Nicole and their love is basically a done deal.  The main catalyst character is the tribal king to be, Dinnamaula, who is just returning from his education at Oxford, ambivalent about his role and his future.  A few off-the-cuff remarks by him, exploited by the newspaper man cause all the problems.  First, he says that he wants to modernize his people, which causes the British government to freak out.  Instead of sitting down with him and discussing how they can work together, the district officer barks at him like an unruly child.  He then says to the same reporter that he wants to marry a white woman, which really lights the fuse.  Everybody behaves stupidly with some idea that if only they are "firm" with the natives, with the opposition, that everything will calm down once the natives realize the errors of their ways.  Their firmness consists of basically taking Dinnamaula and putting him under house arrest, which makes things much worse.

What's so weird about this book is that all the things that actually happen are inherently critical of colonialism, yet Monsarrat keeps on arguing that the tribes are not ready to get out from under colonial rule.  It's like he's arguing against himself or at least the reality he created.  Where it really took a nose-dive, was the finale, where the lone white couple in the northern village are set upon and brutally gang-raped and tortured.  It is so over the top and insane and just nasty.  I hate books that use sexual violence to try and give weight to their story or thesis and this was one of the most grotesque and artificial that I have read in a while.  And then to make it even more insance, the denouement is that the hero and his pregnant wife get given that position in that same village and he is psyched about it!  WTF?!

Really beneath Monsarrat's other work, a true disappointment.  He wrote the sequel 10 years later, so I can only hope that his views had evolved somewhat and his simplistic patriotism mellowed.

It even has an awesome map!


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