Sunday, February 24, 2013

Something To Answer For

by P.H. Newby

The winner of the first Booker Prize, this novel takes place during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and centers on Jack Townrow, a British man who makes his living as a corrupt Fund Distributor.  With nothing holding him to home, when he is asked to come to Egypt (called the UAR in the novel though that seems to be chronologically off) by Mrs. Khoury, the widow of a man he met ten years earlier in Cairo, he goes.  On the way, during a stopover in Rome, Townrow gets into an argument with two men over Britain’s knowledge or lack thereof of the Final Solution in 1942.  Townrow is incensed that anyone would believe the British government to be capable of colluding in genocide, while the Israeli and Greek are more cynical.   In Port Said, on the Canal, he goes to a bar he used to frequent, whose Greek proprietor spins him a yarn about Mrs K’s taking Elie’s body, along with a fortune in coins, to Lebanon though the Canal, which directly led to Nasser’s decision to nationalize it, precipitating the looming French and British invasion.  Townrow drinks until he blacks out – it seems likely to the reader that the bar owner drugged him – and awakens naked and bleeding in the desert, and is attacked by a startled camel driver, causing his head and eye to be bandaged for most of the rest of the novel.  After this incident, the novel becomes much more dream-like in its narrative, with Townrow a very unreliable narrator who gives false names, who cannot remember his nationality (though he asserts that he is Irish as part of a scam he tries to run on Mrs K), nor his age, nor whether his mother is alive. He imagines that Elie is still alive, or that he is watching the burial at sea.  He meets an Egyptian Jew, Leah Strauss, who is married to an American locked in an asylum back home.  She repels his attentions, though apparently she later becomes his lover, and she an obsession for him. Townrow walks though scenes of mob unrest (and kills a man, though apparently nothing comes of it), is arrested as a spy, and watches bloody gunfights between Egyptian and British troops with detachment.  At the end of the novel, Townrow comes to believe that a citizen is not responsible for the morality of his government and has only himself and his own actions to answer for.

I don’t usually write such a detailed plot summary in a review, but this book, with its scenes that seemed to go nowhere but had huge influence on what came after, seemed to call for it.  This is a somewhat bewildering novel, as it is difficult to tell how much of what was related actually took place or how much was a fever or drunken dream.  Did Townrow really dig up the body, or watch a burial?  Did he really kill a rioter accidentally?  The book is very much Graham Greene – efficient British man gets in way over his head in a post-colonial foreign country because he doesn’t understand the history and culture the way he thinks he does – but a Greene novel as co-directed by Christopher Nolan and David Lynch.  I understand that this is a story of self-discovery, and it’s written with skill and erudition, and its message that a person is responsible for his or her own morality is welcome enough, but there’s always a part of me that resents books which make no distinction between internal and external processes.  How can the reader judge whether Townrow’s choices are apt and his journey worth taking when we can’t even know what’s happened to him?

three stars

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