Archive for May, 2010

Michelle de Kretser (2003) – The Hamilton Case

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Hamilton Case is first and foremost a novel of place.  Second, it is a psychological study—a number of them, actually.  Third (and a weak third, I would say) it purports to be—and plays with being—a mystery.  Taken as a whole, it is a rumination on what one might call the British Reichdämmerung—the Twilight of the Empire.  The place is Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in the first half of the twentieth century, when three hundred years of British colonial rule came to an end after World War II and the rise of local self-rule movements. 


The psychology is that of Sam Obeysekere, born in 1902, grandson of Sir Stanley Obesekere, who was a mudaliyar—a Ceylonese office that “placed a man at the pinnacle of our island’s social system” and who rose in the Colonial administration so far as to be awarded knighthood.  It is also the psychology of his mother, Maud, his sister, Claudia, and his wife, Leela, and, to an extent, of just about every character de Kretser creates.


The obvious mystery is the eponymous Hamilton case, but there is yet another, more disturbing mystery that turns out to have permeated the story without asserting itself until the final pages of the novel.  If you are an aficionado of the murder mystery genre, do not seek out this book.  Most of what transpires has nothing to do with whodunit, why, and how.  


This is one of those narratives in which nothing much happens, and at great length.  As a study of place, it succeeds in creating a rather disembodied ambience in which the visual is very much subservient to the feelings the setting engenders in the characters.  This is not a travelogue.  If you don’t know anything about Colombo (or anywhere else in Sri Lanka for that matter) before you read the book, you don’t know much more after you finish it.  But you do get a sense of the enervating power of its tropical heat and humidity and the never-ending struggle against mold, mildew, rot, decay, insects, and other insistently intrusive flora and fauna and their unending olfactory assaults.  There is a lot about smells—more than in any other novel I can remember.  But, there is nothing in the descriptions that makes one want to visit at the earliest opportunity.  Quite the opposite.


One of de Kretser’s expatriate Ceylonese characters articulates the problem an author faces in trying to conjure up a veridical image of Ceylon (or any other unfamiliar setting). 


[Readers] wrote to tell me….  Your work is so exotic.  So marvelously authentic….  I saw that what I had taken for the markers of truth functioned as signs of exoticism.  The colonizer returns as a tourist, you see.  And he is mad for difference.  That is the luxury commodity we now supply….  The prose may be as insipid as rice cooked without salt.  No matter: call up a monsoon or the rustle of a sari, and watch him salivate.  (p.305)


De Kretser serves up both monsoons and saris, but by staying true to her characters manages to avoid providing local color for the sake of local color alone. 


The British Empire in Ceylon, at least as portrayed in The Hamilton Case, is an organization of smoke and mirrors designed to produce the illusion of a velvet glove where in reality there is naught but a mailed fist.  Ceylonese—Sinhalese, Tamil, and (mixed race) Burgher alike—are welcome, nay encouraged (because of their useful knowledge of the island and its cultures) to fill lower-level civil service positions, but only so long as they are perceived to support wholeheartedly the Velvet Glove Illusion. 


In his excitement of “solving” (shudder quotes made necessary by an ambiguity that becomes apparent only at the end of the novel) the Hamilton case—with the foreseeable consequence of finding a white British man guilty of murder and in turn sentenced to be hanged—Sam momentarily loses sight of the underlying reality.  The exhilarating satisfaction of being the instrument of justice clouds his mind.  The prestigious judgeship he expects as his due evaporates.   He has forgotten that nobody who counts wants a judge on the bench who is willing to do equal justice to British citizens and Ceylonese subjects alike.  Sam’s momentary lapse is not so surprising.  Sam was educated on the British model in the best Ceylonese prep school.  He read history at Oxford and then read law at a prestigious firm in London.  In spite of the unceasing barrage of evidence day in and day out to the contrary, he has come to think he is white (or at least colorless) in his profession.  Wrong!


As de Kretser makes clear, the British felt a terrible, hubristic ambivalence towards their colonial subjects—subjects, meaning inhabitants of a subjugated possession, not equal citizens of the British Empire, and certainly not equal British citizens.  On the one hand, colonial subjects were free to travel to England, attend schools there (including Oxford and Cambridge), train there, and live there; but on the other hand they were always the other, the distasteful, fightening dark-skinnned, inferior other.  Tolerated at best.


I am reminded of a conversation I had as a Harvard freshman in 1960 with a classmate from the American Deep South.  I had asked about “the race problem” or some similarly (I hoped) unprovocative paraphrase of the question I wanted to ask, which was roughly, “How do you feel about the treatment of Blacks [actually, at that time, one would have said Negroes] both culturally and legally as second class citizens?”  Now, fifty years later, I still remember his exact words.  In a detectably aggrieved tone he replied, “We love the colored people.  We take care of them.”  A Britain might have said the same thing.  At their most idealistic, they really believed they should, in the words of Kipling’s poem, “Take up the white man’s burden.”


But there was something else going on in England.  As one of de Kretsers’ characters remarks, it used to be in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that a non-white face there would surely belong to a rich person—maybe a prince or a princess—such were the only such people who could afford to travel that far; but by the 1950’s, less distinguished, ordinary people were able to visit, and prejudice could find just that much more traction.


If the novel were transported entirely to England and Sam Obeysekere transmogrified into the son of an eccentric English noble family, his character would be a familiar one.  A boy raised in traditional, emotional isolation from his parents who becomes a cold and distant man unable to relate to his wife or his son, contemptuous of the lower classes, ultimately perplexed by the empty hole inside of him that he tries unsuccessfully to fill with a childishly obsessive devotion to his physical home and the haphazard acquisition of physical possessions that confirm his self-image as a person of substance.  As such, he would not, for the most part, be particularly interesting.  British stiff-upper-lip, emotional constipation has been scrutinized at exhausting length by many writers.  They all come to the same conclusion.  If you are unlucky enough to be unable to recognize that you are clueless about the emotional life of others, you won’t be beloved of your wife and children, and your friends may not care much about you either.


But Sam is Sinhalese.  He has absorbed English culture all too well—a remarkable testament to the identification over time of the oppressed with the opressors.  That doesn’t make his type more interesting, though.  I would rather not have spent as much time with him as the novel required me to do.  It’s all very well to understand why he is brutish, but understanding is different from sympathy.  A sympathetic character, Sam is not.


Sam’s father, who cheerfully and systematically gives away all of the family’s wealth is a disturbing figure.  Largesse is one thing; bringing your family to the brink of insolvency is quite a different matter. 


Sam’s mother, Maud, is another unpleasant presence in the novel.  Irresponsible and uncaring in her own way, she has no affection for Sam; and Sam, although he desperately craves her affection, treats her with contempt—but always maintaining the proper appearances.  He provides her with the minimum necessary, and visits her with scrupulous regularity.  De Kretser takes us inside Maud’s mind as Maud has a nervous breakdown—a psychotic episode that brings to mind stories of LSD hallucinations.  Eventually, Maud regains (or perhaps gains for the first time) control of herself, but by then my sympathy was exhausted.  I didn’t care.


Structurally, the novel is divided into four parts.  Part I is narrated in the first person by Sam Obeysekere and tells of his family, his education, and his life, and the events leading up to his introduction to the Hamilton case.  The author purports that “These manuscript pages were found among Sam Obeysekere’s papers after his death.” 


Part II picks up where Part I left off.  The author narrates in the third person the story of the Hamilton case from Sam’s point of view.  Sam’s brilliant detection leads to the conviction of the murderer, Sam’s fame is established and thus “He knew it was time he married.” (p. 123) 


Part III is about what happened after the Hamilton case.  It is narrated by the author in the traditional Victorian novel voice of an omniscient third person privy to the thoughts and feelings of her characters.  It carries Sam from his marriage to the birth of his son, Harry; the death of his wife, Leela; his estrangement from Harry; and finally his own death.  De Kretser shows us Sam’s mother, Maud, and his wife, Leela from the inside.  We learn that Maud had another son, Leo, who lived only a few months and died in his crib.  Sam was eight and his sister, Claudia was three.  Claudia marries a Sinhalese political rabble-rouser and gives birth to his son, whom she kills and then she commits suicide.  Sam comes to have doubts about whether justice was done in the Hamilton case.  Think Rashomon.


Finally, we learn the complete story of Leo’s death—a tale worthy of Tennessee Williams at his best.  When All Was Revealed, I had to rethink my assessment of the novel so far.  I still thought it was tedious, but at least there was an unexpected, melodramatic twist that moved the story from dead-center commonplace to worthwhile.     


Part IV serves as an epilog, taking the form of letter written after Sam’s death to Harry in England from Sam’s Tamil friend, Shivanathan.  I use the term “friend” advisedly.  Sam would have preferred “former colleague.”  Shivanathan, though, might not have caviled at “friend.” 


De Kretser’s prose is a bit plodding, generally without excitement, but she does from time to time provide thought-provoking insights and satisfying images.


My favorite has got to be the interchange between Sam and his prospective gardeners:


[H]e called together the six men who had restored order to his garden and put this question to them: “What is gardening?”


The rich were like the sun, disease, the pull of currents, which is to say, arbitrary and potent.  Each man feared, instantly, that this riddle would be the means to deprive him of his day’s wages.  They stared dull-eyed….


At last, one of the men took half a step forward….


“It is preventing things from growing.”  (p.140)


And that, on a tropical island where everything conspires to promote the proliferation of plants of a thousand kinds, is the correct answer.


Sam’s wife, Leela, becomes depressed.  In years past, she had found solace in the pages of Sir Walter Raleigh’s novels, but, de Kretser chillingly observes, “Narrative, an optimistic form, assumes that it is worth turning the page.”  (p.151)


Sam, staggered by Claudia’s suicide, watches the monsoon.  “Nails of rain were driven into the sea,” de Kretser tells us.


Sam does not come across as a bigoted person insofar as race is concerned.  Class, yes; race, no.  Still, with children, there is no escape from the culture at large.  Sam’s son, Harry, scolds his ayah for always going in the sun without a hat.  “You will become black like a dirty Tamil person,” he tells her.  (p.236)


Describing the events of February 1948, de Kretser tells us, “The English were leaving, with the haste instinctive to thieves.”  (p.245)


Sam’s son, Harry, goes to Oxford at the age of twenty.  The question of what he should study looms large.  Harry seems to have no particular talents and no interests. 


Sam wrote to his old tutor.  Fisher, now the Senior Fellow, suggested that the boy read history.  It does a young man no lasting harm.  Thus it was settled.  (p. 250)


Sam’s father criticizes Maud, after a prize-giving at Sam’s prep school.


 “I say, old thing, you should try harder with Sam.”  “Should I?” said Maud, as startled by the fact of the reproach as by the point it delivered.  “Yes.”  After a minute, “Do you think he minds?” she had asked.  “I should say so.”  …  Among a set that valued astringency in human relations, her style passed as good form.  (p. 158)


And finally, Maud, writing from the exile Sam has imposed on her to the Lokugama estate in the hinterlands, has been painting a brighter, more optimistic than realistic picture of her situation and her environment to her correspondents.  De Kretser notes, “It was not her intention to deceive.  There is an old instinct at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque.”  (p. 158)


I didn’t think so on the first reading, but on the second reading, this seems like a book worthy of note.