Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Peacock Spring

Sandwiched on the plane back from Zimbabwe, I finished Rumer Godden's 'The Peacock Spring'.

It is a beautiful novel with many of her signatures: the complex interactions between cultures: English and Indian: and, critically here Eurasian - that displaced category, existing betwixt worlds, accepted by few. The growth into adolescence and then adulthood and the way we oscillate between worlds: one moment full of adult moment and insight, the next a child again with its own particular way of seeing. The conflict between those ways of seeing - the searing innocence of childhood that imagines that all questions have answers (even if they are withheld by adults) and the more complex ambiguities of adulthood with all its uncertainties and compromises.

The two central characters evoke these differences: Una the fifteen year old daughter of a UN diplomat, posted to Delhi,  serious, full of an honesty that has never been truly tested and her 'governess' soon to be the diplomat's wife, Miss Lamont, an Eurasian woman who has undertaken many compromises to survive (and with whom, initially, we have no sympathy) and with whom Una is immediately in conflict (even as something unsaid leads them to a vexed sympathy).

The book is full of the sounds, smells, sights of India, deftly evoked. The story unfolds of two loves - Edward, the diplomat father, for Miss Lamont, Una's for Ravi the poet who, for reasons of his own, has become a gardener at the diplomat's house. Both are to be disappointed loves - the first, however, at the book's close offers promise of a more realistic future, the latter is shattered by the realities of circumstance: an early disillusionment that offers the choice of new life or a retreat into bitterness (and the book ends with no note of how that unfolds).

Rumer Godden is one of those novelists who it would be easy to imagine 'middle brow' - entertaining, deftly constructed plots unfold with a vivid psychological realism, constructed of admirably simple sentences. But there is always something yet other, often but not always inserted by way of a necessary but minor character.

In the 'Peacock Spring' this is Ravi's grandmother, with whom the fleeing lovers, Ravi and Una, take shelter in Varanasi. She has entered the traditional third stage of a Hindu life, retirement and detachment and in her dialogue with the pursuing and outraged father, Edward, suddenly all that has gone before, and potentially all that will come, is relavatized against a peaceful knowing that frees us to focus on the essential and which offers Edward a new way of seeing his failings to which he may rise in the fullness of time. It is a subtle, wholly understated, statement of the potential of the spiritual to liberate.

Godden was a friend of what I might describe as 'one of my landladies' - though in truth Dinah was a great deal more than that the mother of remarkable friends, and herself a delight. She would call from time to time and I would answer, waiting for Dinah, now ninety, to shuffle to the phone and we would exchange happy pleasantries. I wish I had known her work then!

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