The Colony – Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee’s The Colony came on my radar thanks as always to Book Twitter and also because of its inclusion on the 2022 Booker Prize longlist. It’s such a terrific novel, very deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it.

More than halfway through the book, Mr Lloyd, an Englishman and Mr Masson, a Frenchman, are typically engaged in another one of their combative conversations. Mr Masson, a linguist and a passionate supporter of endangered languages, resents the Englishman, fearing his unhealthy influence on the island’s residents, the unwelcome changes that will be felt not only in how they communicate but also in the way they think. Mr Lloyd, a painter, looking to revive his artistic career, has arrived on the island seeking solitude and introspection, some much needed inspiration for his art, but the Frenchman’s presence threatens to derail his plans. The two can’t stand each other and Masson, particularly, laments how Lloyd’s presence is slowly resulting in the island’s younger generation switching to speaking English rather than preserve their Irish roots. Lloyd, of course, does not see the problem in that; it is after all a matter of choice. And he, in turn, goads Masson, questioning the Frenchman’s hypocrisy – why does Masson wax so eloquently on Irish heritage and criticize England, when his own country France has colonized Algeria. So why isn’t Masson fighting to preserve Arabic culture in Algeria?

This is just one of the many ideas and exchanges that lace Audrey Magee’s The Colony, an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

A LAYERED STORY & VIBRANT CAST OF CHARACTERS

The Colony is set around the time of the Troubles, a very violent period for England and Ireland who were at loggerheads over the fate of Northern Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Carrying his easel and other painting paraphernalia, he enlists the help of two boatmen to ferry him across the waters to the island, even though he is fairly warned of how arduous the journey will be. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, complaining of certain aspects of the cottage rented not being to his requirements, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule.

After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and known to the islanders because he had stayed there in the prior years too for the purposes of his research. To Masson, an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence.

The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

We then come to the island’s residents themselves, four generations of a fisherman family residing there; a family which forms the cornerstone of Masson’s research.

The oldest is Bean Uí Fhloinn, the great grandmother, who is ancient in every sense of the word and speaks and understands only Irish, refusing to let outside influences sway her. She remains Masson’s favourite character, a sort of a symbol of her heritage, a potent bulwark against foreign influences. Masson assiduously records her talk on his tape-recorder, reveling in the unique inflections and patterns in her manner of speech. Her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, understands English but does not speak it and in that sense is closer in outlook to her mother. The next generation, Bean Uí Néill’s daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son James are a different kettle of fish (pun intended), more welcoming of the Englishman and his thinking. Lloyd’s influence is palpable in Mairéad and James; Mairéad begins to speak some English when she is with him, while James the truly bilingual one in the family, easily fluent in both English and Irish, sticks to speaking English around him. James is enamoured by Lloyd’s profession as an artist and aspires to be an artist himself ready to travel with Lloyd to London for an exhibition; he rebels against his family tradition of being a fisherman, not interested in the least to emulate his late father, uncle and grandfather – fishermen who drowned many years ago in a storm.

James seethes about being holed up on the island and while he performs his duties of catching rabbits for dinner, he shows no aptitude for training as a fisherman. Slowly but surely he begins to spend more and more time with Lloyd, entranced by his paintings, and even begins to dabble in art himself. James also dislikes Masson for the latter’s insistence on calling him by his Irish name Seamus, despite James vocally expressing his displeasure.

Mairéad grieves her husband who drowned along with her brother and father and begins wondering whether household chores are all she is destined to do and if there is life beyond the island. She sleeps with Masson, which everyone is aware of; and in an intense desire to venture into unchartered territory she also begins to secretly model for Lloyd during the day, a fact that she keeps to herself although suspicions are subsequently roused.

Last but not the least are Francis and Micheál…Francis is Mairéad’s brother-in-law and wishes to eventually marry her, he is conservative to the core and remains dubious of Lloyd’s intentions. While Micheál is the typical businessman who sniffing an opportunity, promises both Masson and Lloyd a quiet accommodation without informing beforehand of the other man’s presence, purely motivated by money.

The island seems cut-off from the mainland, but news from the north filters through to its inhabitants leading to fraught discussions. Alternating between the narratives on the island are short reportage-type paragraphs highlighting bombing and terrorist activities, as well as murder and killings rampant from both the Irish and the English side.  

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES AND IDEAS

The Colony, then, is an allegorical tale; a rich, unique, multilayered novel on the complexities of colonization, the nuances associated with embracing global culture, evolution of society and what it means to preserve culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. It’s a meditation on language and identity and how the two are often interconnected.

The legacy of colonialism and its complications, particularly, forms the nucleus of the novel. Going back in history, European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal among others were notorious in amassing colonies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; they were rivals showing off not only their military strength but also the nations they ruled which were termed as “colonies”; countries they captured through the guise of trade and by taking advantage of their political weakness. Yes, there was progress made in infrastructure, healthcare and literacy, but one could not deny the loss of identity, widespread exploitation and constant conflict either.

In the book, the gradual death of Irish language and heritage and the emergence of English as a potent force is a topic explored through Masson’s dissertation as he observes the four generations of inhabitants on that remote island.  Often, history is an account of victories and conquests, the winners script the narrative, the vanquished are pushed to the margins, their stories obliterated. The same holds true for languages, why some die, others evolve and a few like the English language take centre-stage globally. As various nations seek progress, growth and rapid change in the quest for better opportunities and improved standards of living, the language that is widely accepted globally becomes the chief mode of communication, and in the tryst between English and Irish, the annals of history gave greater weight to the former.

The novel also explores the tug of war between the idea of embracing new cultures and expanding one’s outlook versus fiercely protecting one’s heritage and resisting change – James is the voice of the younger generation, ambitious, willing to experiment and seek better opportunities for himself rather than being tied down by tradition and the old way of life. His great grandmother is the complete opposite, preferring to preserve her roots, resisting change with an iron will and happy to be self-sufficient and exist within the confines of the island; content with her world however narrow it is and not at all interested in broadening her outlook. 

Masson, himself, is a complex character in this regard. He might hate the English for playing a major role in diminishing the worth of the Irish language and roots, but has somewhat of a complicated history himself as evinced from the series of flashbacks that offer glimpses into his childhood. Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, Masson’s mother takes great pains to educate her son in Arabic but Masson resists it with all his might as he identifies more with his French roots. Masson’s father is an uncouth soldier, and the mother finds herself increasingly isolated, yearning for a life of literature, culture and ideas. She finds solace in frequenting Arabic cafes with its atmosphere of intellectual discussions, and tries to project some of her hopes onto Masson but to no avail. Here’s Masson’s father inwardly lashing at the Algerians…

…indifferent to his status as a decorated soldier, indifferent when those men should be on their knees in gratitude to him for his service to the country, for risking his life against the savages in Algeria, those dirty nomads who emerged from the desert sands to demand independence from France when it was France that paved their streets, educated their children, built their towns, their town halls, their schools, hospitals, houses, supplied their water, their sanitation. All of it built by France.

The book also dwells on questions of what constitutes art, the professional but nebulous relationship between an artist and his pupil, what can be recorded and what can’t and how the views accordingly vary, and of course the process itself of creating art.

He drew waves pounding the rock, sea hammering the cliff, ocean crashing into the island. He drew water foaming and frothing, water splashing, water surging, page after page, none of it capturing the thundering roar of the Atlantic Ocean on its passage east from America, south-east from the Arctic Circle. How do you draw noise, Mr Lloyd? How do I paint the clangour of battle between ocean and land, sea and rock? The sounds reverberating against the stone, cracking the air? The raucousness of gulls? Of terns? I draw them open-beaked, but still they are silent.

UNIQUE WRITING STYLE

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths. As the book progresses, often, we see shifts in perspectives in the middle of a paragraph reminiscent of Galgut’s writing particularly in The Promise. Through her crisp, spare writing style punctuated with bursts of poetic intensity, Magee brilliantly conveys a stream of ideas and brings out the intricacies of the themes she explores through myriad perspectives. The first quarter of the novel has a filmic feel to it particularly when we are inside Lloyd’s mind as he perceives his surroundings in terms of paintings he might be inspired to create.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, starting as they rowed past.

self-portrait: with gulls and rocks

self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

TO CONCLUDE WITH SOME POINTS TO PONDER

In a nutshell, The Colony is a brilliant book, a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist, one that explores contentious issues – colonialism, violence, culture – that remain topics of intense debates even today. As an Indian, it forced me to think a bit about British colonial rule in India and its implications. While Indians have reaped benefits of being fluent in the English language and have emerged as a force to reckon with on the global centre-stage, the question still remains – would we have progressed had the British not ruled the country for over 200 years? Amartya Sen has penned a very insightful article in this regard for The Guardian. I’ll leave you with the following paragraphs from his piece…

“It is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

“I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.”

Assembly – Natasha Brown

Assembly is the first novella I read for #NovellasInNovember, a powerful, scathing novella of race, identity, an indictment of the corporate world and a withering statement on the hypocrisy that surrounds the idea of diversity.

Our narrator is a young, black British woman working in a financial firm that involves giving the occasional lectures to younger talent across universities. Intelligent, ambitious and hardworking, she has steadily climbed the corporate ladder, earning her the money and the means to live a comfortable life. And yet a sense of disillusionment and inner conflict is palpable.

For instance, in her public talks with younger students she is ambivalent about championing to them the very career path that she has chosen

What compelled Rach to pursue this career? I knew why I did it. Banks – I understood that they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? Unlike my boyfriend, I didn’t have the prerequisite connections or money to venture into politics. The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities; I felt I could hardly waste mine. Yet, it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent.

Meanwhile, our narrator is in a relationship with a white man, born of wealthy parents of a privileged background. As his latest ‘girlfriend’, our narrator is invited to a weekend party at the family estate, a prospect that she does not much savour.  She bitingly points out how her partner has had it easy in life, unaware of the sacrifices involved in ascending the social ladder and being accepted.

There is a basic physicality to the family’s wealth. The house, these grounds, the staff, art – all things they can touch, inhabit, live on. And the family genealogy; all the documents, photographs. Books! A curated history. I press my palm against the rough bark of a tree trunk and look up at its branches. Cool and leafy, the air here tastes like possibility. Imagine growing up amongst this. The son, of course, insists the best things in life are free. All this was, is, free to him. The school-children here don’t need artificial inspiration from people like me. They take chances, pursue dreams, risk climbing out to the highest, furthest limb. They reach out – knowing the ground beneath is soil, soft grass and dandelions.

Interwoven with these storylines is a medical diagnosis that she can’t ignore, a tough decision looming on the horizon, the implications of which she keeps hidden from her partner.

Through these various vantage points, Assembly explores the themes of race and class, the notions of success and the desire to take control of your own life and shape up your own narrative.

Our narrator, particularly, makes stinging remarks when exposing the hypocrisies of so-called liberals, who harp about diversity to project themselves as ‘inclusive’ individuals, when the hard truth is just the very opposite. For instance, her latest promotion at the firm seems to be a result of not how good she is at her job, but rather more of a strategy to enhance the company’s liberal image. That same attitude is displayed by her boyfriend’s parents. They are courteous and polite to her, she is invited to be a part of family meals, but secretly the parents don’t take her seriously as a woman their son is likely to marry.

Assembly is also about identity and how people of colour are never really accepted into the fabric of society when they have worked just as diligently and paid their taxes just as honestly as their white compatriots. Success is defined by not standing out but blending into the background, invisible and unseen.

The other day, a man called me a fucking n-r. he leaned right into my face and spat out those words. Then, laughing, he just walked away.

You don’t owe anything.

I pay my taxes, each year. Any money that was spent on me: education, healthcare, what – roads? I’ve paid it all back. And then some. Everything now is profit. I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit. I don’t owe that boy. Or that man. Or those protestors, or the empire, the motherland, anything at all. I don’t owe it my next forty years. I don’t owe it my next fucking minute. What else id left to take? This is it, end of the line.

I am done.

The book has an interesting narrative structure – at times it feels like we are inside the narrator’s mind as she muses on the various facets of her life (her hard-earned path to the summit of her career, her shaky relationship and so on); at other times the story has an essayistic feel with bit-sized, acid-fuelled commentaries on Britain’s colonial past and its terrible legacy of slavery. Then there is one section barely running into two pages, which alternatively lists various attributes associated with black and white.

Natasha Brown’s prose is cool and clipped, stripped off any embellishments, hard and glinting like a diamond. Armed with a new-found clarity on how she wants to chart out her own fate and not kowtow to accepted norms, the novella quickly hurtles towards a powerful climax.

Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!