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Monday, 25 January 2010

The Mimic Men

The Mimic Men

Once a man is stripped of his dignities he is required, not to die or to run away, but to find his level. – V S Naipaul, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion


Trying to sum up The Mimic Men in a single word I find myself honing in on words like 'frustration', 'jealousy' and 'position' – these were the first three words that popped into my head – and I find that, when wrapped up into a single sentence, they actually make quite a bit of sense: this is a book about people who are jealous of the position others hold and are constantly frustrated in their efforts to completely move up the socio-economic ladder. I should explain 'completely': you can put a peasant in an Armani suit but that's all he'll ever be, a peasant in an Armani suit.

The narrator of our novel – his biography – is Ralph Singh, Ranjit Kirpalsingh actually (he changes his name while still at school), who, when we first meet him, is a disgraced colonial minister having been exiled from the fictitious Caribbean island of Isabella, a British dependency, a scapegoat following a nationalisation scandal. He is not penniless – he was permitted to leave the island with sixty-six pounds of luggage and $50,000, quite a bit in the mid-sixties, which is when this was written, but nothing compared to the fortune he amassed as a property magnate while still on Isabella before getting seduced by politics.

Coke logo (round)_red He did not begin life poor but then neither was he rich. Singh's father had married above him into the Bella Bella Bottling family, agents for Coca Cola, but the real wealth never trickled down to him. A humble schoolteacher his father had advanced into the Ministry of Education and written a life of the local missionary. That was about his only claim to fame until later life when, in much the same way as his son stumbles into politics, he almost accidentally his becomes a cult leader to the poor and downtrodden, preaching a mix of Christianity and Hinduism. He also changes his name, to Gurudeva. Ironically, following this, his son's prestige amongst the pupils at school grows because the teachers mock him and then years later his father's reputation also proves a convenient stepping stone in Singh's political career. Apart from that he does his best to distance himself from his father's family and yet makes sure everyone is aware of his familial connect to Coca Cola:

I liked going with … groups to the bottling works, though it was a torment to me to be anonymous. I longed to receive some sign of overlordship or even recognition from the employees…

'Prestige', yes, that's a better word than 'position' and the one thing that everyone of Isabella is seeking. If it comes with money then all the better but a person's reputation is everything; the word crops up many times in the course of the novel. Right at the very end of the book, after having attained much and lost more, we witness this scene in the London boarding house masquerading as a private-hotel where he ends up living whilst writing his memoir. It is the communal Christmas meal:

I have moved up year by year, but I know I will never sit at our [land]lady's right hand. That position is reserved for a man who has been here twenty-three years, a shy, gentle, delicately-featured man, still quite young-looking, so unassertive in hall and bar and putting green that his eminence on the day comes as a surprise to many.

He acknowledges his own subordinate position but he's also not slow to point out how unworthy the man is as opposed to (although he doesn't say it explicitly) himself. Singh has no problem with a pecking order as long as he can look up to his superior. Early in the book he makes this observation about people on the island, while he was still in a position to command respect:

So we were set apart. And a little above. It is the human instinct for order; and those who willingly ranged themselves below us required us to display extraordinary qualities [and W]e were constantly challenged, provoked, tested.

In London Singh believes he has managed to hang onto his dignity but I'm not sure that's the right word; 'superiority' is a better one, a belief in his superiority at least.

This is not an especially religious novel. It crops up from time to time but Singh never comes across as a particularly spiritual man. It is noteworthy, however, to find that on the last two pages of the book he makes this observation about his life:

I no longer yearn for ideal landscapes and no longer wish to know the god of the city. This does not strike me as a loss. I feel, instead, I have lived through attachment and freed myself from one cycle of events. It gives me joy to find that in so doing I have also fulfilled the fourfold division of life prescribed by our Aryan ancestors. I have been student, householder and man of affairs, recluse.

He then considers what his options are. There are not so many. What he is sure is that:

I do not wish to be re-engaged in that cycle from which I have freed myself. I fear to be continually washed up on this city.

It's an interesting expression but the comparison of the two islands, Isabella and Great Britain, London standing as proxy for the whole country, is made more than once as is the metaphor of being shipwrecked. For example, when Singh suspects that his father's group has been responsible for the slaughter of a prize racehorse he describes what he sees as an ultimately pitiful and useless gesture as if being "performed by a shipwrecked man on a desert island." Likewise he refuses to identify with his family's history on the island; it is simply a place where they have been "shipwrecked". And, again, in London:

Shipwreck: I have used this word before. With my island background, it was the word that always came to me. And this was what I felt I had encountered again in the great city: this feeling of being adrift, a cell in preparation, little more, that might be altered, if only fleetingly, by any encounter.

Isabella is "a haphazard, disordered and mixed society." Singh is of Indian decent, his friend, Hok, has some Chinese in him, Deschampsneuf comes from one of the island's old French families and Browne, who eventually rises to leader of the new nationalist political party Singh becomes involved with, is black but all other shades get a mention throughout the book. Race has a great deal to do with identity but the problem with living in such a heterogeneous society is that there is no longer a clear indigenous population, plus, with the constant awareness that they have been colonised and are dependent on their colonial overseers, they mimic their masters in dress and attitudes but when the tourists arrive they mimic who they used to be. In an interview with Shankar Israel, Naipaul had this to say:

The people I saw were little people who were mimicking upper-class respectability. They had been slaves, and you can't write about that in the way that Tolstoy wrote about, even his backward society – for his society was whole and the one I knew was not. – Veena Singh, 'A Journey of Rejection: V S Naipaul's The Mimic Men' in ed, Mohit K Ray, V S Naipaul: Critical Essays, p156

Singh, of course, as "the late intruder, the picturesque Asiatic, [is] linked to neither" master nor slave; he has to carve out his own place.

british_empire_1920s I grew up in the dying days of the British Empire. It's never really meant anything to me either as something to be proud about or embarrassed over. I certainly never viewed the British as conquerors, more like friendly chaps who wandered into countries and said, "Look, you're really not doing such a rum job running this place, why don't we take over for a while and show you how it should jolly well be done?" and who could refuse an offer like that? It's not until you read a book like this you realise to what extent colonisation can not just screw up a country's identity but also the lives of its youngest citizens.

Singh and his friends have "all studied abroad and married abroad" and so, on returning to the island with his new busty bride, one can sense immediately a feeling that this is not home but it's all he's got; island life is more confining even than he felt himself trapped as a boy. That they would want to change things is understandable. And, like most politicians, I would like to believe, they begin with high ideals. Only once in power do they realise that there is power and real power. He believed that, unlike his father's movement which could only "disturb the peace," Browne and his supporters could, by virtue of their education "question the system itself" and they do but putting their plans into action proves harder than they might have expected. What they were promoting was nothing new; it was happening "in twenty places, twenty countries, islands, colonies, territories" around the world – "the pace of postwar political change" is well documented – but they were relying on "borrowed phrases" from other revolutions in other places. Ultimately he recognises:

We began in bluff. We continued in bluff. But there was a difference. We began in innocence, believing in the virtue of the smell of sweat. We continued with knowledge, of poverty and power.

The people may have been behind them but foreign businesses and colonial officials weren't; they simply didn’t have the money they needed to bring their plans to fruition which ultimately is why his father's cult failed because charitable donations dried up. Singh is sent, cap in hand, looking for government aid from London:

It was a brief, humiliating meeting. This man, whom in other, humbler capacities I had met more than once before on various government trips to London and had thought affable and slightly foolish, now barely had time for the courtesies. His manner indicated clearly that our game had gone on long enough and he had other things to do than to assist the public relations of colonial politicians. In about forty-five seconds he painted so lively a picture of the consequences of any intemperate action by the government of Isabella that I felt personally rebuked.

Then I spoke the sentence which tormented me almost as soon as I had said it. It was this which no doubt made the interview so painful in recollection. I said, 'How can I take this message back to my people?' 'My people': for that I deserved all I got. He said: 'You can take back to your people any message you like.' And that was the end.

He returns to Isabella but only briefly. No one wants anything to do with him bar his family. Within weeks the government falls and so when an opportunity to escape is provided by the "new leaders" he jumps at it.

A striking amount of this book is devoted to Singh's childhood and the effect that the overpowering need to improve ones status had on him, his friends and family, His political career takes up only a fifth of the whole book and so in this regard I think of this book as more of a psychological study than a political study despite the fact that who he is is a direct result of the effects of British colonialism. I've already mentioned the fact that he thinks of himself as shipwrecked on Isabella. If that's the case then where is he truly from?

I have read that it was a saying of an ancient Greek that the first requirement for happiness was to be born in a famous city.

He imagines London but his student days tell him otherwise. This is a great disappointment of course. His suits may or may not have been Armani – Naipaul never says – but all people see is the man inside the suit. It's no wonder that on his return to the island he seeks a way to change Isabella since he clearly cannot escape it.

Singh is a hard man to like. As a boy much can be excused but the man is what the boy grew into and so it's understandable that Naipaul would spend a lot of time looking at Singh's upbringing. He is not close to anyone, not his friends or his family. That in the end he should be abandoned with such ease is no great surprise. While still at school he deliberately sets out to "eliminate and simplify" his relationships concentrating "on school and relationships within that private hemisphere" but what he does discover is that many were willing to take him for what he said he was; he calls this, strangely enough, "a revelation of wholeness" but he's imagining it because he wants/needs it. He refuses though to attend the farewell dinner his school friends plan for him due to an impulsive "fear of warmth and friendship".

His relationships with women are primarily sexual. He seeks comfort in the arms of prostitutes and one has to question seriously his motives for marrying his wife, Sandra; without a doubt her Englishness is a major contributory factor as is the size of her bosom – that Naipaul has given Singh a breast fetish should not be skipped over lightly. Towards the end of the book Singh has a brief affair with Lady Stella while he still has some reputation left. He describes her manner as "a way of looking at the city and being in it, a way of appearing to manage it and organize it for a series of separate, perfect pleasures … It was a creation, of the city I had once sought; an unexpected fulfilment." Tell me if I'm wrong but has he finally managed to have sex with the personification of London itself or am I reading too much into this? It's not exactly a passionate affair; she's not really his type having disappointingly small breasts, and, once his failure becomes absolute, it's clear that he's not her type either.

I started off looking for a word to describe this novel. Here's another I've just thought of: 'ponderous'. The word has various meanings:


Function: adjective

Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French ponderus, from Latin ponderosus, from ponder-, pondus weight

Date: 15th century

1 : of very great weight
2 : unwieldy or clumsy because of weight and size
3 : oppressively or unpleasantly dull : lifeless <ponderous prose>

but it also connotes something to ponder, to weigh in the mind, to think upon. The Mimic Men is not an especially heavy book, a mere 251 pages in the Penguin edition although the print was fairly densely packed compared to more recent printings. So it feels like you're reading a lot and it took me a while to wade my way through this book; it is not light reading. To say it is 'dull' is to be a bit harsh but if truth be told Ralph Singh is a fairly dull character. Even when he's describing exciting things he manages to drain the colour out of the moment. The review in The Times back in 1967 noted this too.

As it is, while Singh (or Naipaul) ponders on meanings, we wait in vain for the novel to happen. These recollected events fail to shatter the even tenor of the memoirist's voice and the over-controlled surface, to burst into fiction, to validate Singh's withdrawal. Failing that, his solemnity is diminished to attitudinizing, by hollow literary posturing. He himself speaks of himself as a "dandy," and he is right; but that is not what he meant.

We're all the more disappointed because we keep thinking what a novel this could have been. Naipaul writes wonderfully well. He has been myopically neglected in this country. Sentence for sentence, he is a model of literary tact and precision, and his imagination--despite any criticism that can be levelled against this book--is nothing but a novelist's. Even his failure is a caution to spurious successes. – Saul Malloff, 'Yesterday in Isabella', The Times, October 15, 1967

175px-DanglingMan "Sentence for sentence, he is a model of literary tact and precision…" – for me that is why one should read this book. There is not a line that does not feel considered. This is precisely what Naipaul intended to say. It might not be what a lot of people want to hear but I would respectfully suggest that it is far from irrelevant. A lot of dull (and, indeed, unsympathetic) characters have had a lot to say, Camus' Meursault, in his prison cell (The Outsider), and Saul Bellow's Joseph, in his cheap New York boarding house (Dangling Man), jump to mind but no doubt there are others.


Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (born August 17, 1932 in Trinidad and Tobago) is a British writer descended from Hindu Indians who had immigrated to Trinidad as indentured servants. He was educated at the University of Oxford in England.

naipaul1.184 Naipaul’s personal life is shocking – he frequently cheated on his first wife with prostitutes, ill-treated her (to the extent that he admitted his devotion to his writing and infidelities may have accelerated her death) and welcomed another woman into his house the day after her funeral. Paul Theroux wrote a damning book about him and in a newspaper article thinks he didn't go nearly as far as he should considering Naipaul nothing less than a "monster". Referring to a more recent biography he had this to say:

It is not a pretty story; it will probably destroy Naipaul’s reputation for ever, this chronicle of his pretensions, his whoremongering, his treatment of a sad, sick wife and disposable mistress, his evasions, his meanness, his cruelty amounting to sadism, his race baiting. Then there is the “gruesome sex”, the blame shifting, the paranoia, the disloyalty, the nasty cracks and the whining, the ingratitude, the mood swings, the unloving and destructive personality. – The Times, April 6, 2008

The biographical elements of The Mimic Men start to become disturbingly clear.

Despite all of this Naipaul has won numerous honours and awards including the Booker prize and a knighthood. In awarding Naipaul the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy called him a "literary circumnavigator" and a "modern philosophe."


Kass said...

What I find interesting about this review is how carefully you considered a book that you admit is ponderous. It would be difficult for me to read this novel because of the subject matter. Status improvement might be an interesting subject, but from what you've described, I can't find a lot of reasons I should care about Singh. Naipaul's treatment of his wife makes me want to not only shun him on the street, but shun his book as well. I'm just that shallow.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Kass, I can understand your reluctance. The problem I find here is, firstly, reading a book simply because it is well-written when I have little or no interest in the subject matter (which is why I rarely dip into anything pre-20th Century), and, secondly, detaching the author from his words. A number of writers have been quite unpleasant characters. The two that jump to mind are Philip Larkin (when Motion’s biography was first printed the whole country took a step back and went, “What?”) and Charles Bukowski who was aggressive and occasionally violent when he’d drunk too much. Where do you draw the line? And, had I known more about Naipaul the man before I chose this book, would I have passed on by? I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t think you shallow for wanting to avoid him. I’ve just written a review of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 4 and the guy whose job it was to interview Naipaul makes the point that he was not easy company. I’ve only seen a clip of him being interviewed once and I thought he sounded a bit full of himself but then a lot of writers come across that way. It was certainly a different read. And we like ‘different’.

Kass said...

I'm back to say how much I loved the poem in the comments on Rachel's blog. Really stunning. One of your best.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Kass, I'm glad it struck a chord.

Rachel Fenton said...

Is it the writer or the writing which is most important? Has to be the writing, I think.

I thought much about your poem to me, Jim, and this came to me in return.

After reading Jim Murdoch's poem.

Grave Words

Poles apart: words gathering on the current from a butterfly's wing
beaten as insignificantly as lashes in the time it takes to blink
away tears wrap around unified thoughts, on a roll, and bind all nations in grief.

This cannot be undone they say, this must move forward; they think
they have found the cure for all the planet's woes in brief
but words make for a slippery balm and hope may stick as well.

And all that is left of good intentions is a loose thread.

Only time will tell
if the words will unravel
or hold the world
and stop it turning.

Dave King said...

I think this is definitely my kind of book. I don't mind about it being ponderous, but the issues intrigue me as much as the story. As you describe it the one is the other, anyway. The moving part for me in your review was when Singh goes cap in hand for aid from London - before we knew what happened there. An excellent review which has whetted my appetite.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that response, Rachel. I think with all the creative effort that’s gone into this between our poems, your blog and all the comments generated this will be something you’ll remember for a long time. You’re right, our words only capture a moment and feel like they only last a moment, people read them, or don’t, and pass on; nothing really changes. We keep hearing about the power of words but if people don’t want to listen then it really makes no difference. I guess that’s why people end up taking up arms.

And, Dave, yes, that scene where Singh come begging is a significant one especially because we readers do know where he ends up. More and more is being written about the effects of postcolonialism. It’s an upsetting subject. I watched Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee over the Xmas break and it’s really tragic how the indigenous peoples were treated by “the white man”. And we call ourselves ‘civilised’.

Elisabeth said...

Gosh Jim, it's late at night and I'm reading your review. For some reason I nearly missed it.

I think despite my best intentions I find it difficult to separate the writer from the writing. somehow these misogynistic attitudes shine through. In the case of Naipaul that seems to a feature. It's also may be a case of the abused becoming the abuser.

I don't have such a benign view of colonisation on the part of Britain or any other country that invades another, as you perhaps, even though I know I should not judge by today's standards.

Despite all this I think your review is wonderful.

It's not a book I'd consider reading, even now after reading your review but then I haven't read anything else by Naipaul.

I dislike the arrogance, the notions of superiority, a certain lack of self-awareness.

This judgment might be unfair of me. Naipaul writes well but to me there's more to writing than that. There's a spirit that shines though and is influenced by the 'soul' for want of a better term of the writer. Patrick white Australia's great writer affects me similarly. But I should not digress.

Thanks again, Jim

Jim Murdoch said...

I hate the word ‘civilised’, Lis. It’s such an arbitrary term, like ‘fashion’. I see them as very similar. Both expect people to adopt their standards of behaviour, dress sense, moral code, whatever. It is so well represented in the British – but predominately English – snobbery and aloofness. They waltz into countries that have been doing very well thank you very much, look down their noses, sniff and then tell you that’s not how civilised people behave. The result, several generations down the road, is someone like Singh, one of the many mimic men in the book.

Had I known that so much of the book was going to dwell on his time in Isabella I might not have chosen this to read and the parts I enjoyed the best were at the beginning and end where we see him in London after the fall. There was very little about him that I could relate to other than the desperate need not simply to fit in but to excel at fitting in. That I understand and that’s an underlying reason why people do play follow-my-leader so easily – we want to fit in.

I wouldn’t push anyone to read this book unless they have a particular interest in the subject of postcolonialism. Good writing is not enough reason to read anything. I am glad though that I only found out about Naipaul the man after having read the book and in that respect my review does the book a disservice. As you say though, it can be hard to separate the book from the man. Why you might find Naipaul more interesting than others is the fact that he draws heavily on his own life as source material, more so than most of us. That he has turned out to be a fairly unpleasant individual from all counts shouldn’t put people off; they’re quite happy to read books about serial killers and war criminals and corrupt politicians, in fact they lap them up.

John Ettorre said...

Thanks for this review, Jim. That opening quote really drew me in, as does anything having to do with this writer. His life has indeed been a train wreck, and he appears to be one of the most thoroughly miserable, self-centered, misanthropic men to have ever roamed the earth. His former protege Paul Theroux first gave us a view of what a lout he can be, and then the newish biography that came out last year sealed the deal (you can't help but come away half admiring him for allowing it to be published with all the warts).

And yet if you can somehow set that all aside--which I admit is often hard to do, and probably harder for women than men--his prose (or some of it) can make the hair on your neck stand up and salute. To say he's a master of the English language doesn't even begin to cover it.

Jim Murdoch said...

John, I'm really glad to hear from someone who knows this guy's work and life better than me. One can only do so much research. You make a number of very valid points here. Thanks for this.

sonia kundra singh said...

I loved this book, despite my slow paced reading. And it becomes very important to know the life of the author as well when i read a complicated narration.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have mixed feelings about knowing too much about an author, Sonia, because that knowledge can often overshadow their work. I think I preferred when I knew nothing about Beckett for example because then I could treat the work as he intended it, on its own merits, but now I've read so much about him I can't unlearn what I know and there are times I'd like to.

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