I have been sick for a couple of days, and I really should've been sleeping last night, instead of finishing this book. But, instead, I was finishing this book.
I am not even sure where to begin with the writing process here. This book is a mass of contradictions: problematic, beautiful, shocking, deplorable, and incredibly compelling. The characters, even more so, with no one character being all good or all bad, even while they are doing things that are horrifying.
This book is about the slave trade in a very real way - and all of the characters (both European and native) are involved in it in some capacity or another, and their opinion of it seems to be informed by and based upon the level to which they personally benefit from it. And the main character, Hero, is a young woman who is deeply opposed to slavery, but who also, as a result of her arrogance and naivete, interferes in the government of Zanzibar and causes the death of dozens of natives. Her interference likely kills as many Zanzibar natives as the slave trade did, in the year that she was there. Does her "pure" heart excuse her from responsibility? What about the fact that her "pure" heart is esentially acting out of ignorance and arrogance, seeking to supplant her judgment (when she has been in Zanzibar for all of about ten days) for the judgment of the native government?
"He said meditatively: ‘Leaving aside the larger issues, why, specifically, do you abominate slave traders? Because they make money out of it?’
‘No.’ Hero’s voice was ice. ‘I told you once before and I am quite certain that you have not forgotten it. But if you really wish to hear me repeat it I shall be happy to oblige you. I abominate them because they are personally responsible for the death and agony and degradation of thousands of people. Of innocent human beings who have done them no harm and with whom they have no quarrel. Because they callously condemn to appalling suffering and misery—–’ ‘
Yes, that’s what I thought. I just wanted to make sure I hadn’t got it wrong. Then perhaps, Miss Hollis, you can tell me how it is that, while holding such views, you have recently been doing your damnedest to make yourself personally responsible for the death or mutilation of several hundred human beings who cannot have done you any harm, and with whom – as far as I know – you can hardly have quarrelled? And furthermore, why you should have thought fit to assist in the extension of a trade you profess to abhor? I will absolve you from the charge of doing either of these things for the sake of personal profit; though that at least would have been a more understandable motive than a mere love of meddling. But I confess I find it interesting.’
To Hero's credit, I suppose, she is horrified to learn that she has been used by those who are far more cunning than she was to advance their own interests. But I feel like I am going horribly off track here - again. Let me try to get myself back to the point.
I can't figure out M.M. Kaye, and maybe that is because she, herself, was a mass of contradictions. She, at times, exhibits remarkable insight into the colonial arrogance, with quotes like these:
Yet saving only yourself, I have never yet met a white man who did not consider that I and my people would derive great benefit by changing our ways and imitating theirs, or who did not try and impress upon me the immense superiority of all white laws and customs. It is very strange.’ (a statement by the Sultan Majid to Rory Frost).
Why, I ask you, should we of the East forsake the laws and customs of our forefathers at the bidding of ignorant and contentious foreigners whose own governments and priests cannot agree among themselves? Tell me that?’
‘Because,’ said Rory unkindly, ‘you are not going to be given the option. Not in the long run. You can’t argue with a gunboat if all you have is a canoe and a throwing spear – no aspersions on your fleet, you understand, I was speaking metaphorically. There is a certain tiresome and time-honoured argument that has been in use since the dawn of history and can be best summed up by that elegant sentence: “If you don’t, I’ll kick your
That, my friend, is what you are up against!’ The Sultan wagged his head and said sadly: ‘There are times when I fear you may be right.’
‘I wish I only feared it instead of being sure of it,’ said Rory with regret. ‘This is only the morning of the White Man’s Day, Majid. The sun hasn’t reached its zenith yet, and it won’t sink until every Western nation in turn has done its best to foist its own particular Message onto the older civilizations of the East. And by that time, the lesson will have been learned too well and there will be nowhere left in all the world where a man can escape from Progress and do what he damn’ well pleases – or find room to breathe in!’ (a conversation between Rory Frost and the Sultan, Majid)
Somehow Hero did not think so, and for the first time it occurred to her that there were aspects of Western cities and Western civilization that might appear as ugly, crude and appalling to Eastern eyes as Zanzibar and some of its customs had appeared to her. (Hero's ruminations on Seyidda Salme, who has fallen in love with a young German man and fled to Europe to marry him).
And then, at other times, she seems sympathetic to the worst excesses of colonialism. Kaye herself was born in India, the daughter of a British officer in the Indian Army who was raised, first in India, and then in a British boarding school. She returned to India after completing school, and married a British army officer there, and ended up moving 27 times in 19 years, all over the world.
I haven't even gotten to the characters yet, or the so-called romance, and this review is already incredibly long. But I do need to say a few things about them before I close this meandering collection of thoughts. It is rare in a book to see so much complexity in characters. Each of the main characters, in his or her own way, demonstrated remarkable growth throughout the course of events in this book. Hero, herself, is the most obvious of these - she grows from a young woman with all of the answers to a young woman with none of the answers, while assisting in a failed rebellion, being abducted and raped, and then, finally nursing abandoned or orphaned children through a cholera epidemic with no thought to her own health. Rory, as well, exhibits enormous growth of character, from a young man who cares only for revenge and money, to something more.
But, I have to talk about the relationship between Hero and Rory. Since I closed the book, I've thought about their reconciliation and their ultimate decision to be together, and it is really difficult for me to process, and here I will get a bit spoilery, so be warned.
Rory abducted and raped Hero in retaliation for Hero's fiance, Clay, raping a young slave, Zorah, who had borne him a child. And while the rape itself is not described graphically, there is no question but that this was a rape, not a so-called "forced seduction," as was fairly common in books of this vintage. There is a second night, as well, where the question of rape is somewhat less clear, but, nonetheless, I am going to assert that was a rape as well, as it is pretty clear that Hero did not consent on either occasion.
So, wow. Rape was a fairly common trope in books of this sort that were published in the 1970's, so if that is a deal breaker for you, dear reader, by all means skip this book. And, the idea that a woman would fall in love with, and agree to marry, the man who has abducted and raped her, even if he does feel really ashamed of it and even if she might've been developing warm feelings about him before he abducted and raped her, that is really a bridge too far for me, personally. But, on the other hand, the rape is really central to the narrative arc of this story, so while it is a deal breaker for me as far as Rory's character goes - no matter what, I can't root for the rapist - I am not sure that Kaye could've written this book without it.
This book raises so many questions for me, not the least of relates to writing fiction about abhorrent aspects of our shared historical past. What is the *right* way, if there is a right way, to handle that? Reading about characters who act or speak in concert prevailing attitudes that served to oppress women, native populations, black people or whoever the minority might have been is incredibly uncomfortable, and it can be perceived as defending those attitudes and practices themselves. But, at the same time, it is important to be historically accurate, and those attitudes and practices did prevail, and it does not help confront those attitudes to pretend that they didn't. As well, I do believe that it is important for authors to not shy away from tackling tough historical subjects. I would not say that this book glorifies the slave trade. But many of its characters do not condemn it.
To sum up, this book is super, super problematic with elements of colonialism, comment on the slave trade, white savior narratives, and rape. And in spite of all of that, it is also complicated, well-written and absolutely riveting.