London In The Tropics
The brutality of tropical life shocked the unprepared British
I’m not sure I can sustain the image of a rainswept London for much longer in my fiction. It’s rapidly ceasing to exist.
This year London has been hotter than Ibiza; nearly three months of blazing sun so far, crystal skies, birdsong and emerald fecundity. The 5:00am traffic sussurance is slowly building, like a slightly out-of-use machine being fired up. It seems that Londoners are calling the shots about lightening the Lockdown.
London is used to many things but not lassitude. We are a becalmed tropical state, the governor having an afternoon nap at his desk while the kingdom drifts in the lazy heat. The fans of industry are turning very slowly and the Grand Wazir has toddled off to play with his concubines. Or in English terms, those ‘working from home’ have gone sunbathing in Southend.
Writers have strong traditional attachments to tropical climes. With JG Farrell’s ‘The Singapore Grip’ and Somerset Maughan’s ‘The Painted Veil’, I’m once again struck by a school of writing that explores other lands from perspectives forever clouded by colonial interference. As a child my tropical reading began with ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘Coral Island’ and ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’. As an adult I enjoyed Norman Collons’ ‘Flames Coming Out Of The Top’ and ‘The Governor’s Wife’, Malcolm Lowry’s cruel and tragic ‘Under The Volcano’, the early African novels of William Boyd and David Pownall, Evelyn Waugh, Nick Harkaway. I’ve come across fewer female ‘exotic’ authors, although there are whodunnits like ‘A Crocodile on the Sandbank’ by Elizabeth Peters and Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ . For me, reading Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ was as revelatory as any tropical novel because it dealt with a world as remote to me as say, Sri Lanka.
Rural Britain is the very antithesis of tropical countryside, but the duel images frequently blur in novels; ‘A Handful of Dust’, Evelyn Waugh’s most quintessential English novel, concludes horrifically in the jungle, an image that shockingly juxtaposes the two environments. Religious and moral hypocrisy finds a perfect metaphor in the lush, decadent fecundity of tropical life.
These twin landscapes emerge from our history of colonisation and ‘going troppo’, with tales of cruelty, decadence and madness set in India, Africa and the West Indies. In Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ we have a colonial prequel to ‘Jane Eyre’, in a the novel which deals with the themes of racial inequality and the pain of displacement. Life in the tropics is more brutal and polarised than in our own culture, which is too suffused with complex semiotics.
When British company members moved to India they tried to recreated the hedgerows of English gardens, only for their ladies to pass out in the heat. Less account for climate was made than for their perceived harm caused by changes in morality, leading to theories of rape in the fictional Marabar Caves of ‘A Passage to India’. But Forster’s game was bigger; the caves represent an ancient emptiness, the more terrifying aspect of the universal oneness embraced by Hinduism, where Christianity cannot have a place.
Just as writers like Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy used the pioneer West to expose the brutality of life, British writers used the tropics to explore themes which polite society had covered up from them. In the 1956 novel ‘Zama’ by the Argentinian author Antonio di Benedetto (beautifully filmed in 2018) an 18th-century administrator in the service of imperial Spain waits endlessly and desperately for news of the better posting he assumed would would reunite him with his wife and children, left behind in Buenos Aires. But in the morally supine world through which he now drifts nothing can be achieved.
Tropical characters cast adrift are surprisingly accepting of their fate, or even embrace it as inevitable. When you consider that colonialists with minimal experience were dropped off in jungles and told to build functioning, productive towns by the time the ship returned in four years, it’s hardly surprising the kettle wasn’t on when the captain came back.
Best examples of tropical novels, anyone?