- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004


By Michelle de Kretser

Little, Brown, $24.95, 320 pages


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. Early in the novel, he recalls a violent fight between his father and mother (the flamboyant, eccentric, temperamental, and unfaithful Maud, who once plunged “in a jungle pool wearing only her bloomers, even though there were gentlemen and snakes present”).

Sam hopes that his mother might actually kill his father, and he fantasizes about the consequences of such an action: “Squeezing my knees together, I rocked for joy. She would be mine, all mine! Imagine my disappointment when she moaned and he laughed, and next thing they were sitting side by side, the best of friends.”

Though this Oedipal frustration is not all that uncommon, it forms only a part of the Obeysekeres’ strange family dynamic. There is also the dubious relationship between Sam and his younger sister, Claudia, to consider.

Ms. de Kretser’s elusive prose suggests incest. At the very least, the children share a wholly unnatural bond, which might have something to do with the death of their infant brother, Leo — the most significant and haunting aspect of “The Hamilton Case.”

To Sam, Leo is “that puny stranger,” “an adversary, a pretender to my throne.” The story of what really happened to the child lies buried under many textures of narrative — murky and unsettling.

Could Claudia, in all her innocence, have taken her younger brother’s life at Sam’s urging? And does the resulting guilt (not to mention the burden of an abnormal sibling love) lead her to mutilate herself later in life, and then to take her life and that of her own child? Maud’s complicity in the bizarre sexual relationships of her family must not be forgotten, either.

When Sam’s memoirs come abruptly to an end, the novel reverts to the third person, filling in gaps in what we have read so far, while at times obscuring what we have come to view as truth, what Sam’s telling may have convinced us of.

We see Sam’s sexual longings as something raw and base, stripped as they now are of his deceptive narrative voice. We see his jealousies intensify, especially that of his childhood rival Jaya — who marries Claudia and becomes a Sinhalese nationalist.

As Sam recedes from the foreground, the lives of the novel’s other characters are explored, including the widowed Maud, who has now taken up residence in a decaying house and is tormented by fits of hallucinatory madness. She roams the jungle like a shade, dressed extravagantly, as if for a ball, though her appearance cannot avoid a certain “sluttish disarray.”

The awful truth of her life — including what she knows about Sam, Leo, and Claudia — may be buried in her subconscious, but her madness begins to loosen that truth from her memory’s stubborn grasp, overwhelming her completely.

She pens florid letters, and Ms. de Kretser draws attention to the overwritten exotic phrases Maud uses (“the intoxicating scent of jasmine or the emerald flash of a parrot’s wing“), the unfortunate stuff of so much contemporary South Asian fiction.

By novel’s end, the Obeysekeres have fallen apart, and it is Ms. de Kretser’s great skill that has allowed us to become so thoroughly involved in a sordid family drama that we almost neglect to notice the great events passing by in the background: world war, the departure of the British from Ceylon, the racial tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese, the fighting between Hindus and Muslims to the north.

As Sam ages, the jungle closes in on him, and his memory begins to fail. And “a line of a poem he had learned as a schoolboy hammered at his brain: “They are all gone into the world of light. ‘The world of light,’ he repeated aloud. ‘The world of light.’ It suggested cellophane, and angular chairs fashioned from blond wood. He stepped out each day from dim rooms of solid brick and mortar into a world as insubstantial and alluring as images projected on a screen.”

This passage underscores what a grandiose act of self-deception Sam’s life has been. Unable to come to terms with the beast lurking in the jungle of his memory, he retires from life a charlatan, and an antiquated one at that. Perhaps that line from Henry Vaughan, which hammers at his brain, doesn’t sum up his life’s disappointments so much as one of my favorite lines from “Antony and Cleopatra” does: “The bright day is done, / And we are for the dark.”

Sudip Bose is a senior editor of Preservation magazine in Washington.

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