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Review of Coolie: Peter Burra

 http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/26th-june-1936/30/fiction
From Journal The Spectator
The Spectator, June 25, 1936, page No 30
Review of Coolie By Peter Burra

The Fourth Pig. By Naomi Mitebiaon. (Constable. 7s. 641.) The Coolie. By Mulk Raj Anand. (Lai-rence and Wishart. 7s. ad.)
Tug-Boat. By Roger Vercel. Translated by W. B. Wells. (Chatto and Windus. 7s. 6d.) Return of a Heroine. By Marguerite Steen. (Collanez. 7s. 6d.) All Star Cast. By Naomi Royde Smith. (Macmillan. 7s. Cxl.)
WILY have not her publishers assured the success of Mrs. Mitchison's new book by drawing attention to the numerous passages of Surrealism which it contains ? The Fourth Pig is a medley of short pieces in prose and verse which, though all fantasies, have little in common but their hints of leftist tendency. While adopting the Fairy-tale as a palatable medium for her purposes, the authoress has not attempted to present any consistent Mythos. On the one hand, in modern variations of Nordic or Slavonic themes she uses a fairy-magic, which is acceptable, to re-interpret the everyday world like a kind of heightened economic or social awareness. On the other, she, or her heroes and heroines, appear as the victims of nothing more nor less than Celtic Twilight, strug- gling back from the lures and illusions of Faery to the real world. Either manner is equally efficient for the Fable. It becomes quite a good game to guess at what point and in what form the economic or social lesson will emerge from its grotesque disguise, the moment and the surprise in " Soria Moria Castle "—an excellent story—being especially delightful.
Only one piece, " Adventure in the Debateable Land," looks like pure psychic automatism from start to finish, and there the making of a date for the First of May as a finale is disquietingly allusive ; but such an event is doubtless sufficiently automatic by now with Mrs. Mitchison, and the fact that such items are to be found lying about in her subconsciousness is a nie^ proof of the sincerity of her waking purposes. For of that there can be no question. So site projects Dionysos, with his slave who asks for freedom, into the modern world where the workers are " free "—with significant results. And in " Mirk, Mirk Night," herself battles back from seven years of enchantment in Fairyland to become the mortal wife of a labourer in the work-a-day world.
To that real world Mr. Anand eminently belongs. The Coolie is the second- part of a trilogy interpreting the present state of the lower classes in India,- to the first of . which, Untouchable, Mr. Forster introduced us last year. One would hesitate to call The Coolie an even greater book, but it is on a much bigger scale. Untouchable dealt with a single eventful day in the life of a city sweeper. Far from confining himself again to such unities Mr. Anand has produced in The Coolie a work which is picaresque in its whole manner and construction, except that his hero is no rogue himself but victim of the world's rogueries. His subject is the behaviour of Indians among themselves, but needless to say the conditions he describes are the direct result, however unintentional, of British rule. Untouchable showed the gradual breaking-up of the caste-system. The Coolie con- tinues this with an account of the system which is taking its place, of class based on money. The story opens with a brief idyll that introduces the peasant boy Munoo watching the cattle by the side of his home river. From here he is uprooted—the changes of tempo in the prose here and else- where are of the highest art—and the adventures of his short tragic life follow in four major episodes, first as servant in the house of a bank clerk, next working in a primitive pickle-factory in a feudal city, then as one of the proletariat of the cotton industry in Bombay, and finally as the servant of a half-caste woman at Simla. Each of these episodes is in itself a study of conditions as complete as Untouchable. They arc linked together by a series of typically picaresque accidents. The whole is a terribly vivid panorama which is propagandist only in the sense that any frank statement of such facts is bound to appeal for their correction. How that is to be done is another matter. Mr. Anand at least leaves little doubt that the Indians cannot help themselves. They appear here as thoughtless and as cruel to one another
as birds that turn on a wounded member of the flock and destroy it. The English occur only as minor characters, and are described mostly with an inclination to caricature, in fact precisely as they must appear to Indian eyes. It would have been false to Mr. Anand's purpose to describe them otherwise. But there is no special distinction drawn between the races. If the Bombay magnate looks exag- gerated, what about Lady Todar Mal ? A fantastic creature, yet she rings absolutely true.
However brilliantly the general picture had been painted it would have been no more than a picture but" or the-character of the boy Munoo. He is essentially the same person as Bakha, the Untouchable, differing only in physical appearance -and incidentally Mr. Anand has a special genius for describing the outsides of people and things. There is no more to Munoo than to Bakha—nothing but irrepressible curiosity and hap- piness. The shadows of joy and desire, and the simplicity of his mind in the face of ever-increasing suffering, are magni- ficently done. He is incapable of dramatising experience; so that in his sudden questions—" Why are some men so good, and others bad "—there is an indescribable power. Yet he is no tragic hero ; nothing nameable is wasted when he dies, nothing but his own love of life. But such is the force of the author's pity that all that is good in life seems to be irreparably lost with him.
Munoo is a universal kind of figure. His is the passion not only of India but of mankind. It is hard to think oneself back from him to books where the special individual is of all-importance. Such are the rest in this list—books which. claim attention for characters that are significant in extremely specialised circumstances, but have no fneaning apart from them. M. Roger Vercel's Tug-Boat, for instance, admirably translated by Mr. W. B. Wells, describes the personality of the captain of a salvage-boat stationed at Brest, and the subordination of his private emotions to his public duties. Two-thirds of the story are occupied with the rescue of a Greek steamer in a heavy storm, and though the narrative is extremely vivid it has to be helped out with retrospective digressions: These however are tidied up very carefully in the French manner. In such a construction everything depends on the placing of climaxes and these are well enough done with an admirable succession of increasing surprises. Some curious pieces of female psychology are linked in with the story in the personalities of the wives of the captains of the two ships. But the interests of such a world are limited however vividly told, and the revelations of human nature under those conditions, if impressive, are not illu- minating.
Again Miss Marguerite Steen's Return of a Heroine deals with equally special, but hardly such fascinating circumstances —the repercussions of a sensational case of Euthanasia. This looks at first sight like one of those books which, as Mrs. Woolf says, require to be completed by joining a society or writing a cheque. But after all our sympathies, so efficiently launched, get badly stranded. Our cheques are written, but nobody seems to want them. The heroine, emerging from two years of prison for putting her mother out of suffering, proceeds to develop a " colossal egomania " of criminal tendencies, which cast a shadow on the motives of her earlier. " heroic " act. With the exception of one minor young man all the characters of the book are repulsive, but fortunately none of them conies quite alive enough to upset us.
All Star Cast, moving on several planes at once—the whole paraphernalia of a "first-night," the play itself, the critics' reactions, &c.—is not so limited in interest; but the eircum-- stances are again, at every level, special ones, and the most affecting part, the material of the play itself, is approached in a literary way at second-hand. This play is, in fact, " the thing," and the consciences of the spectators are not perhaps vitally enough caught in it. But the whole is au acrobatic piece of story-telling, with some good satire and very shrewd observations of theatre psychology. And these are, after all, the .autharess's main concern in the plan of RUB- book




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