Where is the Britain of Wodehouse and Waugh?

They never knew the effect their writing had on we Indians, the third worlders.

I went to university in a dusty tin shed in New Delhi. It was an off-campus Delhi University college meant for academic failures. The roof leaked shafts of searing hot sun in summers, showers in monsoons and the occasional wispy cotton-candy like fog drifted in during winters. Stray dogs would loiter outside the classroom and the principal had spent the money meant for the library on his backyard extension.

My fondest memories of that tin shed are of reading up on the adventures of the Famous Five in coves off the Cornish coast, Miss Marple’s acute understanding of the human nature in the village of St Mary Mead and Bertie Wooster’s dandyish escapades in the metropolis.

I wasn’t the exception. P G Wodehouse, often overlooked in Britain, sells like hot cakes in India. Societies dedicated to his work litter Indian cities and novellas are re-enacted in incongruous accents. Small railway stations in impoverished provinces of India sell Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh. Saki is quoted with relish over the afternoon chai. Blyton’s Malory Towers is read by girls in pigtails, off to school on rickshaws. Tamil and Kashmiri boys read Richmal Crompton and are on first terms with William, Ginger and Henry.

Connaught Place in New Delhi is the very centre of the decaying capital of an emerging economy. It is white-washed and modeled on the Royal Crescent in Bath. Little gypsy girls from Rajasthan, hair blonde from mineral deficiencies and stomachs bloated from kwashiorkor, wriggle their bodies through iron hoops for a rupee, a banana, or a piece of jaggery. This is the India I grew up in. Driving through the wide, sun-dappled avenues of Lutyens' Delhi, stopping for a spot of jamun from the roadwallah, a spot of roasted maize, deftly stepping over a bundle of rags with eyes gouged out, blinded and mutilated by parents to ensure begging revenues for the coming pensionless years.

Growing up in India, I, like other good middle class boys with oiled side-parted hair, servants and creases down the front of the trousers, kept ugliness at bay. The Indian middle class, like their counterparts elsewhere, excel at putting the blinkers on. And in a land filled with starving little Rajasthani gypsy girls, one could do with a set of top-notch pukka A1 grade blinkers. Blyton was at hand at the Delhi traffic-lights to keep away disturbing images of deformed beggars and widowed old hags.

What would Bertie Wooster do?  

Jeeves instructed me in the art of the stiff upper as the Yamuna stank in the monsoons. 

"Listen, Corky, old top! If you think I am going to face that uncle of yours without Jeeves's support, you're mistaken. I'd sooner go into a den of wild beasts and bite a lion on the back of the neck."

"Oh, all right," said Corky. Not cordially, but he said it; so I rang for Jeeves, and explained the situation.

"Very good, sir," said Jeeves.

That's the sort of chap he is. You can't rattle him.

In India, fine twentieth century British literature makes a very compelling means of escape from the daily drudgery. The British might have been the sunburned sahibs that cracked the whip over the sub-continent, but they wrote bloody well.

Everything was AOK. How could it not be? I thought that in a world where England existed all was tiptop. Ticketyboo! A  phantasmogoric England: of Richmal Crompton, of oak trees, Cottingley Fairies, mist and red bricks, of freshly baked bread, of ruddy cheeks, tweeds, pheasants, pipe tobacco, water-wheels, chukkas and jodhpurs, What ho! and I say!

I had decided I was going there to study. Post-haste!

I had no idea what it meant to be called to the Bar, but it sounded very good. Bahut accha! 

So I packed my bags. I took to Britain like I had taken to shaving; at the first sight of pubescent hair, I had shaved my upper lip; then the elbows, knees, the knuckles and lastly my toes. Britain, Albion, that Fair Sceptred Isle was dealt with the same enthusiastic fury as shaving was. I memorised county names and read up on her prime ministers. Radio 4 was an All-British institution, someone told me. I shook off my sing-song voice, copied the RP assiduously, took care of my Vs and Ws, unlearnt the Indian vocabulary. Bamboozle. Bombastic. Funtoosh! I moulded myself on a dandy, molted in my room listening to the radio all monsoon; Stephen Fry, Jeremy Paxman, read Flashman, watched Blackadder and came summer emerged as a cheap imitation of a substandard Englishman.

I was giddy on the flight to Britain. I had never been abroad. The plane flew over the mountains of Afghanistan, wrinkled and bare. Within the folds of those wrinkles, I wondered if strange bearded men were fighting the Green Jackets, the Royal Marines, and the Parachute Regiment... from England!

Those nine or so hours on the flight to London from New Delhi were spent masticating a Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus, spitting out the words in an appalling imitation of an Oxford drawl and dreaming of a country with no dust - just good honest moist sod.

The immigration lady at Heathrow looked at my passport and then at me. The soles of my feet kept sliding on a thin film of sweat as my palms wet the cold granite of the counter. Suddenly she jerked her head at me and asked me for a tuberculosis report. I didn't have one.

Outside, clutching my four pieces of luggage in the rain, Britain seemed harsh and alien.

And so began this search. This search for Britain of my books. Did it exist anymore? Did it ever exist? Was it all a con?

Five years of Private Eye, Jeremy Clarkson, Newsnight and Peter Hitchens have lanced the Waugh, the Greene, the Blyton out of me. It was all a con.

I wonder if the British ever realise what effect their writing has had on us, the third worlders. It inspired love. Love for a country that most of us had never visited, love for people that hold us in contempt, for an establishment that had raped us, then pontificated and left suddenly with scarcely a toodle pip. An incurable stench of disappointment hangs in the air.

How could something so beautiful be so untrue?

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

P G Wodehouse in 1928. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism