Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Racists, Kunal Basu.


Kunal Basu’s third novel, Racists (2006) is an interesting read. Set in the middle of the nineteenth century, it concerns itself with the conflict between two scientists, Samuel Bates and Jean-Loius Belavoix. (Both are fictional). Bates is the creator of the Chain of Races theory: this propounds that the Black race is separate and inferior to the White Race. They resemble, but are as different as Zebra (wild and African) and Horse (civilised and European). Following a disagreement in Florence, in front of the Italian Academy of Science, Bates and Belavoix set up the “Ultimate Experiment” by which a Black Boy and a White Girl will be placed in the care of a mute nurse on a deserted island, Arlinda. As a craniologist, Bates believes that the White Girl (the lowest of her race…as a female) will prove superior to the Black Boy (the highest of his race…as a male). (The neat, ironical check to this belief is that Bates is reliant on the monetary power of his wife, a Quaker philanthropist, who wishes to prove that there is no racial difference and thus find a scientific basis for attacking world slavery). The novel opens in 1855 with the babies being delivered to the island on The Rainbow: a symbolic touch that represents what is at stake: the bridge between God’s order and mankind’s.

Racists is written in a lively style. It balances argument and description well, never plunging too deep into racial theory, nor falling into luxuriant travel narrative. In Bates and Belavoix, Basu creates two grand and appalling, Dickensian caricatures. Historically, the novel works successfully within basic background details. In the 1850s-60s, polygenist arguments were popular. And Bates is a forerunner of James Hunt, a craniologist who believed that racial differences were fixed. There are, however, some flaws in the historical base of the novel. The experiment is designed to run from 1855-1867, 12 years, until the children approach puberty. The main part of the novel terminates around 1861 and closes with Bates arguing-off-the-cuff against Darwin’s new theory. By that date, Darwin’s theory in The Origins of Species (1859) had been fully propounded and attacked. It would hardly have been a surprise to Bates. The novel also closes with a retrospective statement by Quartley, Bates’s assistant, that alludes to the American Civil War: “The battle to raise the races together…was to start soon in America…Abolition took just fiver years to win.” From a post 1865 date, Quartley asserts that Darwin finished off “racial science” and it took decades for it to re-emerge. Actually, that was not so. Darwinism did not destroy “racial science” and in an editorial to the Eyre controversy in 1865-66, The Morning Herald followed popular public opinion when it wrote: ‘“Am I not a man and brother?” would now be answered with some hesitation by many…who regard the blacks as an inferior race.’ A point that Ruskin, Kingsley, Dickens and Tennyson supported. Also, rather puzzling is a belief (by the author) that it would have been difficult to return the Black boy to England (after the experiment) except as a house-boy, as if by there had been no development in the lives and minds of Black people since the 1800s: one reason for the author’s pragmatical plotting in “Middle Passage”.

If there is a literary failing to Racists, then that is connected to the characterisation of the children in the experiment. They never become much more than feral beings in the eye of the reader. So, when the novel begins to work through sympathy for the children’s plight it is not particularly convincing. There is no real identification between child and reader. At the best, a reader can bring a humanitarian objection to the experiment, though such aligns the reader with the flimsy socialite views of Louisa Bates and Esther Graham. Perhaps, Basu assumes that a reader will bring an instinctive modern objection to the experiment and always be on the children’s side. If so, he is mistaken for a modern reader follows the fictional reality that the author presents.

Ultimately, though, Racists is a thought-provoking and intelligent novel.