Book Review: A Division of the Spoils

A Division of the Spoils is Paul Scott’s conclusion to his Raj Quartet. As the Second World War draws to a close, and Indian Independence looks increasingly inevitable, both English and Indians alike are forced to ask themselves what place there is for them in a new India. Paul Scott’s appreciation for the complexities of this period in history, his exploration of them through a diverse set of characters caught in events much larger than themselves, make his quartet of novels a true epic.

The Raj Quartet

It is 1945 and while the war with Germany is over, the war with Japan drags on. The British in India are planning a major invasion of Malaya but are frustrated that the supposedly secret offensive is being talked about openly at the parties of Bombay socialites. Sgt Guy Perron has been sent to investigate further.

In the army because of the war, Perron is not made for being a soldier or an intelligence officer. An academic, he prepares lectures on Indian history and culture that are ignored by the officers he delivers them to, who could hardly care less. Perron has otherwise been trying to keep a low profile and is careful to avoid becoming attached to any particular operation or officer, hoping to pass the war years quietly and resume civilian life as soon as possible. He hopes this new assignment will not spoil that.

Perron is supposed to be accompanying a senior officer, Capt Purvis, to a party. Purvis, also a civilian academic, has become deeply disillusioned by his time in India.

For heavens’ sake, sergeant! You’ve been in India for what’s it, two years? It’s taken me no more than three months to write it off as a wasted asset, a place irrevocably ruined by the interaction of a conservative and tradition-bound population and an indolent, bone-headed and utterly uneducated administration, an elitist bureaucracy so out of touch with the social and economic thinking of even the past hundred years that you honestly wonder where they’ve come from. Not England, surely?

[…]

The fact is places like this have always been a magnet for our throw-backs. Reactionary, uncooperative bloody well expendable buggers from the upper and middle classes who can’t and won’t pull their weight at home but prefer to throw it about in countries like this which they’ve always made sure would be fit places for them to live in. They’ve succeeded only too well.

Feeling increasingly trapped and depressed, Purvis is in no state to attend the party tonight. Perron, though still enchanted with India, can see his own future in Purvis if he allows his time in India to get the better of him.

Going ahead to the party alone, Perron does not learn anything about potential leaks of secret military information, but he does meet characters we are familiar with from the earlier novels of the Raj Quartet; Sarah Layton, Count Bronowsky and our friend Ronald Merrick.

Merrick, now a Major, is disfigured from the events of the previous novels, with facial burns and an amputated left arm. As always, he remains just as eager to achieve a rise in social standing despite his hatred for those born into privilege and higher social ranks. It is for this reason he has attached himself to the Layton family. It is also the reason Merrick now has his eye on Perron.

It’s part of the technique of the self-invented man. Merrick looks round, his eye lights on someone and he says, Right, I want him.

He thinks people like you and me are scum. He believes we’ve abandoned the principles we used to live by, what he would call the English upper- and ruling-class principle of knowing oneself superior to all other races especially black and having a duty to correct them. He’s been sucked in by all that Kiplingesque double-talk that transformed India from a place where plain ordinary greedy Englishmen carved something out for themselves […] into one where they appeared to go voluntarily into exile for the good of their souls and the uplift of the native. The transformation is illusory of course. […] But a man like Merrick can’t be expected to see that. He’s spent too long inventing himself in the image to have energy left to realise that as an image it is and always was hollow.

Perron is a member of that privileged class Merrick so despises. In fact, he was a student at Chillingborough, the elite school that was also attended by Hari Kumar; the innocent victim from Merrick’s infamous days as a police officer. It is with a certain internal glee that Merrick would like Perron as a subordinate. Perron is not naïve to the fact that to work for Merrick is to succumb to the very thing he has been careful to avoid, and that Merrick is just the type of Englishman Purvis believes is ruining India, but neither does he have to power to escape it. The more time Perron spends working for Merrick, discovering his Machiavellian methods to blackmail and manipulate those around him, the more he can see Purvis’ point of view.

Meanwhile, Russian émigré Count Bronowsky is still chief minister to the Nawab of Mirat. With Indian independence increasingly inevitable the future of princely states such as Mirat, which were never part of British India but were nevertheless beholden to British security for their autonomy, is increasingly uncertain. Bronowsky, as always a realist and insightful, has the challenge of convincing the Nawab that it will not be possible for him to continue ruling once the British leave.

The Layton family have their issues as well, but with a certain English stoicism, are reluctant to admit or address them. Susan, is clearly still struggling to cope with the death of her husband. Her sister Sarah, remains the most difficult to read. Clearly rebellious against her family’s aristocratic status, independent and romantically available, her true feelings remain hidden from prospective suitors and the reader even when we have access to her thoughts. Their father, Lt Col Layton, has returned from a German prisoner of war camp a somewhat different man; as uncertain of himself as his family are of him.

Another part of the novel concerns the difficulties faced by Mohammed Ali Kasim. As a Congress politician, Kasim was imprisoned for much of the war and is released to an India with a very different political dynamic. The growth in power of Jinnah and the Muslim League has made Pakistan almost inevitable and Kasim’s position, as a Muslim member of Congress, a difficult one. Further, his eldest son has been captured while serving in the Indian National Army (INA) – a rebel army composed of Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese and released on the condition that they now serve Japan.

The real intentions of the INA remain murky. Were they traitors who joined the enemy? Were they secretly loyal and thought the best way to serve Britain was to march with the Japanese and rejoin the British once they neared the border with India, rather than remain prisoners of the Japanese? Or were they men who considered their duty to Britain over once they were captured and were simply trying to return to their families?

Though I have perhaps made it sound as if Perron is the central character, this is mostly a novel without a central character, time or place. Perron is the closest thing to the reader’s main witness to these events as he reluctantly works for Merrick, befriends the Layton family, enjoying their hospitality and that of the Nawab. Though he remains enchanted with India, the shocking events as independence nears, means that, like the English, his time there must come to an end.

‘For at least a hundred years India has formed part of England’s idea about herself and for the same period India has been forced into a position of being a reflection of that idea. Up to say 1900 the part India played in our idea about ourselves was the part played by anything we possessed which we believed it was right to possess (like a special relationship with God). Since 1900, certainly since 1918, the reverse has obtained. The part played since then by India in the English idea of Englishness has been that of something we feel it does us no credit to have. Our idea about ourselves will now not accommodate any idea about India except the idea of returning it to the Indians in order to prove that we are English and have demonstrably English ideas. […] Those who came out became detached both from English life and the English idea of life. […] Getting rid of India will cause us at home no qualm of conscience because it will be like getting rid of what is no longer reflected in our mirror of ourselves. The sad thing is that… in the Indian mirror the English reflection may be very hard to get rid of, because in the Indian mind English possession has not been an idea but a reality; often a harsh one.’

This was actually the second time I’ve read A Division of the Spoils. The first time was a couple of years ago, but I thought I’d take a break from it before putting my thoughts in a review. An unwise decision, because the experience faded from memory pretty quickly and I was left with no firm thoughts to write about! Having posted reviews for the first three novels of the Raj Quartet, I had to ask myself if I was stubborn enough to reread a novel I would otherwise not reread just for the sake of having the material for a review. The answer, obvious to those who know me, is yes, I am that stubborn!

I’ve made it sound like a chore but it was not completely. Some parts of the novel were genuinely engrossing and had me turning pages swiftly. Often these were the parts where characters discuss events in India at the time or discuss their opinions on historical figures and other characters in the novel. There were many great passages, discussing cultural and racial divides, the roles of colonist and colonised, that I would have loved to share here. Of the four novels in the quartet, I found A Division of the Spoils to be my second favourite after the opening novel A Jewel in the Crown.

There was also one innovative literary device Scott uses that I’d like to share. The novel could be considered broadly of having two parts – one set in 1945 in the dying months of the Second World War, one set in 1947 in the months leading to Indian Independence. To bridge the gap, Scott has Perron visit the office of an Indian newspaper to see the work of a cartoonist he admires. What follows are descriptions of the cartoonists work over the years, depicting the various political events and developments over the period. Some of the cartoons were published to great acclaim, satirising the politicians and events involved, exposing the ironies and hypocrisies. Others were deemed too provocative and controversial for publication. Scott achieves a lot in this method; he bridges the gap in time, describes the intervening developments and subversively provides commentary on them as well. I found it innovative, amusing and clever.

There were a lot of dull passages as well. Parts that were slow, uninteresting or seemingly unnecessary. Long passages of introspection and analysis. Moments when I wondered if Scott was writing for his reader or for literature professors and their students. His penchant for long convoluted sentences continued to aggravate me.

The story that three senior members of the Bengal Club promptly died of apoplexy, although not without a certain macabre charm, proved to have no foundation in fact; but there was no doubt that for several days relations between many British officers and the rank and file of conscript British soldiers serving their time in India, who had voted by post and proxy, were a little distant, and in one reported case demonstrably strained and only saved from escalating to the point where they would have formed the basis of a very serious affair of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline by the presence of mind of sergeant-major who stood between his captain and a lance-corporal who had admitted ‘voting for old Clem’ on the railway station at Poona and said ‘Sir, I think we have a little touch of the sun.’ It was raining at the time.

Having read the entire quartet, I think this final novel is symbolic of the whole. There is much to admire and enjoy. It is also a long endeavour with much to struggle through and some readers less stubborn than me may not make it. But it is the former, the parts that I admire, that will draw me towards reading Staying On; a follow up novel and Booker Prize winner, rather than my stubbornness to continue. I think the readers most likely to persist with the Raj Quartet will be ones who, like me, are committed to reading of India or alternatively, those on the other side with a similar desire to read of the old Empire. Scott is an excellent guide for such a journey. Whatever issues you may take with his storytelling, his knowledge and appreciation of a complex, controversial, and multifaceted time in history is undoubted.

See also my reviews for the other novels of the Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion and The Towers of Silence.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Division of the Spoils

  1. I love this series and also the fifth novel, Staying On even though most of the figures from the Raj Quartet are not in evidence. Its some time since I read Division of the Spoils so I’d forgotten that section on cartoons.
    Have you watched the TV adaptation – it does a super job of interpreting the novel

    Like

    • I do have the TV adaptation on DVD and am eager to watch it soon. I just have to get through The Night Manager and the latest seasons of Orange is the New Black and Indian Summers first! Thanks for your comment

      Liked by 1 person

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