October 04, 2006

Arthur and George.

Julian Barnes's recent novel has been written about in many places- sometimes as in this review by David Wormesley in ways that readers of this blog would be interested in. Its a very rich novel which tackles a fascinating case- when a half Indian soliciter was arrested, convicted and then freed upon the evidence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a case which led to the creation the Appeal Court.

I want to pick up a different thread from most treatments of the novel so far advanced in the media, and concentrate not on the history but on Barnes's acute understanding of the psychology. As this is a novel written in two first person accounts, what we get is an overwhelming impression of the way that every human perception is isolated from every other. In the case of Conan Doyle, the isolation is as Wormesley and others suggest epistemelogical- what we see with Conan Doyle in this novel is a series of attempts ot understand and grapple with the world, a series of attempts in which Doyle had to make elisions of reality, he presumes things without evidence, infers things from the evidence but its perfectly clear to a reasonable reader that he cannot do anything more. For Doyle within this book to have stuck to the evidence and not manufactured reality would have been to take a road leading to depression or insanity or both.

For the other narrator though the effect of isolation is almost more interesting and one that has really not been written about. George Edalji from the beggining of the book to its end has no friends, very few close relationships (perhaps only those with his father and his sister) struggles to communicate with anyone and more often than not fails. Whereas Doyle goes through life effecting others and rewriting his effects, Edalji on this evidence glided through life without any effect. We never meet his clients as a soliciter, though the historical record suggests (and Barnes partially agrees) that he was a gambler and had financial links with others, we never see them. Reading Edalji's account is an incredibly claustrophobic experience- the only talkers apart from himself taunt him or bulldoze him into their agendas- he is almost always a silent objector to others' plans.

It leads one to the realisation though that suspision of Edalji was not purely racial though it had a severely racial compartment. In Barnes's book it was also because of his personal behaviour, nowhere is this more evident than in the behaviour of the Police, especially the Inspector in charge of the case. Barnes's portrait of the meeting between Edalji and the Inspector shows how the peculiarities of Edalji's character lead him to infuriate the policeman and consequently lead to his arrest. The portrait of Edalji is the portrait of a victim of society- his struggle to be heard and clear his name a part of his struggle to be heard at all. In many ways Edalji is always struggling to be heard- struggling at the beggining of the book to succeed, in the middle to be released and at the end to be recognised as a wronged man. He has a story always he longs to tell. Only in the middle section of the book, where Doyle's constructed narrative takes over Edalji's story can Edalji be heard and even then, its perfectly clear that its Doyle's version of events that is heard not Edalji's.

The problem that this book therefore faces us with is wider than the problem of racism- though Barnes doesn't underplay that- its a dual issue- on the one side what humans do is take facts and draw lines between those facts to create a narrative, an idea of what happened, what is happening, what it means and what will happen. On the other is the realisation that there are some humans whose views about the world and themselves are never heard because they lack natural articulacy, socially awkward and irritating, they lack the ability to talk save through a ventriloquist who, as Edalji finds, pronounces their words with a different accent.

This is in part what this review has done to this marvellous novel, and being a humble ventriloquist I venture to suggest you should read it and correct my errors of pronounciation, but its worth wondering as well whether the issue of politics today is as much the franchisement of those naturally disenfranchised as of those unnaturally.


Anonymous said...

Reviewer: Check your spelling and grammar.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous- thanks for your note.