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!

The Wind That Lays Waste – Selva Almada (tr. Chris Andrews)

I am beginning to rely on Charco Press for interesting literature from Latin America. Already this year, I have read and loved two wonderful books – The German Room by Carla Maliandi and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Thus, when The Wind That Lays Waste was recently released, I was very eager to delve right into it. And I also thought that the cover was the most gorgeous of their books so far.

Wind that lays waste

The Wind That Lays Waste is set over the course of a day in a remote town in Argentina, somewhere in the Chaco region.

The novella (it’s slim at 114 pages) is centred on four characters – Reverend Pearson, a forceful Evangelical preacher who strongly believes in Christ, his sixteen year old sceptical daughter Leni, Gringo Brauer, a garage mechanic and his young assistant Tapioca, who is the same age as Leni.

Reverend Pearson and Leni are on their way to Pastor Zack’s home when their car breaks down. They have no choice but to take it to Gringo Brauer’s garage and wait while the car is getting fixed.

Gradually, the personalities of the four characters are revealed to us.

Reverend Pearson is passionate about his calling as a priest and is renowned for the power of his sermons. His mother and even his church mentor for that matter view his gift for preaching as a means to secure funds for the church, but for Reverend Pearson it is all about winning souls for Christ to purify.

Once again, he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire that will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.

Leni’s relationship with the Reverend is complicated. She resents that her father’s affection for her is not total; there is always Christ between them. She is also disdainful of her father’s belief in divine intervention at a time when having a practical view makes more sense. And yet despite these feelings, she admires and respects his charismatic preaching.

But that’s not all. Leni cannot forget that Pearson one day abandoned her mother and took Leni with him. It is something they have never spoken about since then but it hangs like a Damocles sword.

Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.

Gringo Brauer is the opposite of Reverend Pearson. He is getting old and cynical and believes in the power of nature, in the power of the present. He has not much use for religion.

He had no time for lofty thoughts. Religion was for the women and the weak. Good and evil were everyday things, things in the world you could reach out and touch. Religion, in his view, was just a way of ignoring responsibilities. Hiding behind God, waiting to be saved, or blaming the Devil for the bad things you do.

He had taught Tapioca to respect the natural world. He believed in the forces of nature. But he had never mentioned God. He could see no reason to talk about something he thought irrelevant.

And then there is Tapioca. When he was a child his mother visited Gringo one day and left the child with him, claiming that Tapioca is Gringo’s son.

Tapioca, meanwhile, is an eager assistant; vulnerable, innocent and ripe for being influenced and molded by whomever takes him under their wing. Tapioca feels uncomfortable around revered Pearson but at the same time is fascinated and mesmerized by the preacher’s talk on Christ.

Eventually, as the weather worsens, and a storm is approaching, tensions between these four (or more precisely the two men) reach boiling point.

The Wind That Lays Waste is an intense and beautiful novella that can be read over the course of an afternoon. Almada’s storytelling is straightforward and spare. And her writing is languid and lyrical.

Her descriptive powers, when it comes to either nature or man-made surroundings, stand out. She is particularly great at evoking the stark landscape of Argentina.

She couldn’t remember a storm like this. Blue cracks flashed the sky, giving the landscape a ghostly look.

Five hundred yards away, in a field, lightning struck a tree, and the orange flames held out against the rain for a good long while.

It was a beautiful spectacle. Sometimes the curtain of water was so dense they couldn’t see the old petrol pump, although it was just a few yards away.

The one thing I was not sure about when beginning this novel was the extent of religious overtones. I am averse to books where religion is the focal point, but thankfully Almada manages to not make this novel preachy. All the characters’ viewpoints are presented and there is no indication that Almada prefers one view over the other. It is left for the reader to decide.

‘Are you a believer, Mr Brauer?’

The Gringo poured himself some more wine and lit another cigarette.

‘I don’t have time for that stuff.’

The Reverend smiled and held his gaze.

‘Well, I don’t have time for anything else.’

‘To each his own,’ said Brauer, getting up.

Overall, another strong offering from Charco Press!