- Her Victory by Alan Sillitoe
Granada, 590 pp, £8.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 246 11872 5
- This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane
Penguin, 338 pp, £2.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 14 006334 X
It was surprising to see the resemblances between Her Victory and This Earth of Mankind. Alan Sillitoe’s new novel is about 50-year-old Britons feeling rootless. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is concerned with young people of the Dutch East Indies in the 1890s, almost choked with different roots – religions, races, cultures, classes – all sprouting wildly. The resemblances struck me when I started reading the Indonesian novel as an invigorating respite, after the slow melancholy of Sillitoe’s first chapters, ‘Making a Break’ and ‘Home from the Sea’: the first of these is about Pam, a bored, friendless housewife in Nottingham, trying to get away from her husband; the second is about Tom, a bored, friendless Merchant Navy officer making his way to the flat of his dismal maiden aunt. In the third chapter, ‘Meeting’, Tom finds Pam in a dreary North Kensington flat, trying to gas herself with an unlit fire, and dutifully slaps her to life. He is a man of duty, thus described: ‘The system of forethought by which he lived made sure that on the next watch, or by the morning after, he would find all necessary items for life and duty laid out in perfect navy order. Such drill, when working with a thoroughness too ordinary for him to admire, made existence easy, for sufficient preparation meant less to think about when the moment of necessity came, though he didn’t doubt that if assailed by an unexpected happening his training and intuition would channel him into the right actions. There was no other way of doing things.’ It will be recognised that Sillitoe’s paragraphs need to be read slowly.
But the Indonesian novel races along, told by a spirited, vulnerable Javanese boy, the only Native at the Dutch High School in Surabaya, during the celebrations for the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina. His friend, a Mixed-Blood ‘Indo’ or ‘Indisch’, invites him to meet a girl more beautiful than the Dutch queen and he goes to her house, where he is welcomed by her impressive mother, a Dutchman’s concubine, a Native nyai (officially despised by all cultures) who, along with their beautiful daughter, runs the Dutchman’s estate and business (since he is mad and rude to Natives).
Reluctantly, I dragged myself back from Surabaya to Sillitoe’s mournful account of Tom and Pam in North Ken – and began to notice the resemblances. For one thing, both novelists express, very convincingly, the rage of an able woman serving an inferior male. Secondly, both are unashamedly determined to delve into their characters’ backgrounds and ancestry, using those reminiscences and flashbacks that so often wreck a story – and using them very well. Thirdly, they make real, with passion rather than the customary satire, the spirit of rage and unreason which eternally menaces marriages between people of different cultures, setting wives against their fathers, as well as their husbands. We see that 20th-century Britain, multi-cultural and multi-racial, has been fermenting these quarrels, in its quiet way, as inexorably as 19th-century Java.
One of the British versions emerges in ‘The Women’, the fourth of Alan Sillitoe’s six long chapters. Pam has persuaded Tom to ferret through his Aunt Clara’s papers and diaries to find out where he came from: he was sent to an orphanage as a boy and then packed off to sea. ‘Clara began with her mother, whose maiden name was Moss and first name Rachel. Her father was a tea merchant who had settled in London from Hamburg.’ Rachel was Jewish, but married a Gentile, Percy Phillips, against the will of both fathers. The Phillipses had one son, killed in the British Army, and two daughters, Tom’s Aunt Clara and his mother, Emma. The flighty Emma had fallen for a member of the catering staff, while cruising on a passenger boat, and this long-lost man was Tom’s father. He was Jewish, too.