Thursday, March 02, 2006

Robert Elwood Burns: Punjab Nights

Punjab Nights is a novel which the author says might appeal more to Brits than to Americans; and he's right, though the Brits have to be of a certain age and class. In any event, it is a very fine piece of work, and I for one found it an absorbing and enjoyable read.

In my youth it was commonplace to hear the following remark: They say that everyone has one good novel in them.

I suppose the meaning of that is fairly obvious, but it's worth explaining a little of the background. At that time -- it was fifty years ago, remember -- English novels were often leisurely, discursive, and mannered. They were elegant slices of life. And usually upper-class life at that. True, there was some out-and-out commercial writing. But when educated people spoke of 'the novel' they were often thinking of a semi-autobiographical account of either a career, life in one of the colonies, a marriage, or military adventures. In other words, a novel was thought of as the embodiment of a life. And the first requirement for a novelist, therefore, was to get a life: to acquire experience.

Robert Elwood Burns's Punjab Nights reminds me of all the various people who spoke in those terms when I was a lad. It may or may not be autobiographical, in terms of the events which befall the lead character. I neither know nor care very much. What is clear is that the novel is based on the author's experience of Pakistan.

Burns has a web site which is full of good stuff, and it provides a brief biography, from which we learn that he is an American who once served as an advisor to the government of Pakistan. And Punjab Nights, he says, takes placed in a fictional Pakistan. Well, not as fictional as all that, I suspect. The time is the late 1960s, and here is the author's own description of the plot:

Attempts at representative government had faded and the military and police were moving into permanent dominance amidst a debilitating brew of tribal strife, the heroin trade, a flourishing black market, and a corruption-inducing system of central planning and controls. The looming demise of the faltering military leader heightens uncertainty and tensions to the point where ever more desperate individuals must break the law to survive, and otherwise decent people are prone to deception and violence.

Enter Karl Pedersen, honest, self-confident, straightforward advisor from the American Midwest -- more culturally ignorant than ugly -- fleeing a broken marriage and seeking a year of quiet healing in a South Asian backwater that, unbeknownst to him, is about to explode. What follows is a fast-moving tale of intercultural love, adventure, revenge and betrayal -- from Lahore in the Punjab to Karachi on the Arabian Sea, from the flesh trade to the basmati rice trade, and from high seriousness to low comedy as the sometimes hapless, sometimes sympathetic, anti-hero is bruised and buffeted into a reluctant understanding of the rules of a different and more dangerous game.

Well, that all seems clear enough. This is not exactly a thriller, but neither is it one of those navel-gazing literary things. It's an old-fashioned novel, of the kind that English people were thinking of when they said that everyone has one good novel in them. It clearly speaks from personal experience, and one of its chief virtues is the picture it paints of the people of that time and era.

The British are different from Americans in many ways, not least in that we all have, either first-hand or second-hand, some experience of Empire. We have friends and relations who are either in foreign parts now, or were, often for extended periods. We know people who lived and served in India, Kenya, Malaya, and a thousand other outposts of Empire.

Take my father, for instance. In 1942, his army unit was sent into what was then India and is now Pakistan. He didn't come back to England until 1945. He saw neither wife nor son in that time.

My father was in a regiment called the Royal Signals, and he seems to have spent the war monitoring morse-code traffic on the short wave. What on earth was the purpose of that? While he was alive I never had the wit to ask him. But when I read in Punjab Nights of places like Hyderabad, Quetta, Lahore, and Karachi, they are familiar to me, because I know that my father was there. I have a box of faded photographs.

Of course, the British 'owned' India at the time, so there was certainly a need for a number of British troops in that vast country, just to remind the inhabitants of who was in charge. But Royal Signals? Were they listening to the Russians? Or the Japanese?

Then there's my Uncle Frank. He was an officer in the Gurkhas, which is a brigade recruited, in the main, from the hill tribes of Nepal. They are small in stature, but fierce fighters, and you do not mess with them if you value your health. 'Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.' So said Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC, who served with the Gurkha Rifles in the First World War. And in the second world war my Uncle Frank too was in India. Again, what his regiment was doing I have no idea.

In any event, the point is that many, many English families have similar connections with India, Malaya, Kenya, and a hundred other exotic places. And therefore, although Punjab Nights is written by an American, with an American hero, it is one which many English readers are going to find rewarding. If nothing else, it will give them some additional insight into all those stories told by Grandad.

On his web site, Burns gives an account of how the book came to be written in its present form. He makes it clear that, after a false start, he made a conscious effort to entertain the reader. And he has succeeded.

For a first-time novelist, he has managed surprisingly well, and from a technical point of view there isn't much to criticise here. As something of a viewpoint perfectionist, I wrinkled my nose once or twice when the viewpoint of the story shifted; but most readers won't notice.

The opening chapter (which you can also read on Burns's web site) sets the scene very well. And before long we become aware that he is intimately familiar with the complicated castes, tribes, classes, and other social divisions of this crowded part of the world. He is skilful at describing the nuances of social class and conduct which were (and probably still are) so important there; though mercifully they have ceased to be quite so overpowering in the UK.

If you insist on some 'fine writing' (whatever that may mean) in your novels, try chapter nineteen, in which our main character takes a couple of weeks off to participate in kite-flying competitions with the neighbourhood street urchins. And, in the end, he comes up against an old and disabled lady. This is a truly evocative section of the book, because it describes something that one cannot conceive of happening anywhere else.

The publisher for this book is Llumina Press, which makes no secret of the fact that it exists to provide services for 'self-publishers'. By and large they seem to have done a good job for this author. The typeface is a decent size, though the page is a little overcrowded for my taste. The cover is no great shakes either, but it looks as if the author chose the illustrations.

There are the usual extracts, on the cover, from pre-publication reviews, or early readers' comments, though they are unidentified. And it is amusing, in my eyes at any rate, that the author has the courage to quote one reader who describes Punjab Nights as 'an outrageous whitewash of immoral and unethical behavior.' Can't say I got that impression myself, but there you are.

I'm not surprised that the author resorted to a a firm like Llumina to get this book into print. I can imagine this book being published by an 'orthodox' publisher, particularly a UK one, forty years ago. But not today. Today an editor would look at it, purse his lips, and say, Yes, well, this is all quite professional in its way. But... But it isn't a thriller. It's about a foreign country. It's got a bit of sex in it but it isn't... well, it isn't sexy. So he wouldn't buy it.

Anyone planning to write a novel would do well to pay an extended visit to Burns's web site, where you will find a good deal of useful information and thought-provoking comment on the art of writing and the state of modern publishing. And Burns is kind enough to say there that he has been influenced by some of my own ideas, notably those set out in my extended essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

Finally, I've been racking my brains, while writing this, trying to remember the name of a British novelist who wrote books about India and other parts of the Empire. And at last I have remembered. It was John Masters.

I was going to describe Masters as a long-forgotten author, widely read between about 1950 and 1970. But I find that he is not forgotten at all. Not, at any rate, by his agent. And some of his stuff seems to be still in print.

Masters was an Englishman. Like my Uncle, he was an officer in the Gurkhas and had extensive experience of the north-west frontier area. In World War II he served with great distinction in Burma. On one occasion, while defending a position behind Japanese lines, he and his men were attacked with great intensity for seventeen days. He was obliged to give orders to shoot nineteen of his own men, who were wounded beyond any hope of recovery or rescue. So, he was a man who 'got a life' and then some.

After the war, Masters turned his hand to writing novels, making use of his extensive experience, and he proved to be a popular author. His agent's page provides a useful summary of his subject matter. Perhaps the most famous of his books was Bhowani Junction (1954), which was later filmed.

John Masters's books are not without their critics, many of whom think his work to be too generous to the role of the British in governing their Empire. (Every form of empire is, of course, deeply exploitative, as any politically correct person knows full well; though who, precisely, exploits whom is sometimes overlooked.) The critic Ronald Brydon described one Masters book as 'political pornography'.

Well, God forbid, of course, that anyone should paint a favourable picture of British influence in India or anywhere else. The very thought is enough to make one clutch one's heart and stagger backwards. But, when John Masters's books first came out, most readers lacked the perception to see what dreadful lies he was telling. (Do I need to label any of this as irony. Yes, judging by previous reactions to some of my stuff, I probably do.)

Anyway, R. Elwood Burns's Punjab Nights belongs in the John Masters tradition, and is a worthy successor, if not quite so obviously popular in its appeal.


archer said...

Yes, yes, but.."flaunted" for "flouted" on the very first page?

I will read on, however, because of the opening line and the self-authenticating rush of detail.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Archer, "flaunted" for "flouted". See Webster's Unabridged. Admittedly it is through popular usage by: "...even well-educated and literate persons.", but "...concerned speakers and writers still continue to keep them separate." You have a right to be concerned.

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