Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Sun Never Sets... Huh?

This week's New Yorker delivers a more challenging selection: "Sundowners," by Monica Ali. As noted in the link, Ali is a British novelist, shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, and the daughter of English and Bangladeshi parents.

On its surface, this is simply the repulsive story of a writer (Stanton), sequestered in Portugal to finish a novel, and his conquest (?) of his poor, filthy neighbors, the Potts. Yes, repulsive; this story has dripping snot, a dead cow swarming with maggots, a vomit-flavored kiss, a sow who eats her litter, dogs pissing on the floor, and on and on, mostly provided by the Potts family, a flea-infested, self-mutilating, filthy, filthy, filthy bunch.

At first Stanton avoids involvement with the Potts family, but eventually he is drawn to them, fascinated with their lowness; first he befriends the young son; then he has sex with the mother (repeatedly) and then with the deaf teenage daughter. At the end, when Stanton has scorned his two lovers and finished his book, he visits the family, only to find that the mother and daughter have apparently spilled the beans. The father asks him, "What kind of man are you?... What kind of man are you?" Stanton goes back to his house, drunk and feeling as though his back is broken, but not so dispirited that he can't think
about how beautiful the place was and how much he would miss it. The rain had stopped in the night, and the sun played in the treetops, scattering diamonds here and there. It teased purples and scarlets from the plowed-up field and burnished the far-off hills a fine shade of nostalgia.

Huh? Nostalgia, after this catalogue of squalor? What's going on here?

The clues are in the title ("Sundowners") and the names and nationalities of the characters. This is a cynical look at the British Empire, upon which the sun was never supposed to set but for which the sun has indeed gone down. Stanton is the more-or-less proper British gentry, moneyed, on extended holiday to finish his "work" of writing a novel. The identity of the Potts family is suggested here:
“You’re English,” the boy said. Stanton had not noticed him there.

“Hello, compatriot,” he said.

The boy grew unsure. He beheaded flowers with his stick.

“We’re both English,” Stanton clarified.

The boy (Jay) doesn't acknowledge his nationality; rather, Stanton thrusts it upon him. He has colonized the boy, as he is soon to colonize his mother and sister. John Jay, of course, was an American, crucial in negotiating an end to the Revolutionary War as well as Jay's Treaty in 1794.

The mother's name is Chrissie (her arms are scarred and bleeding; can you say Stigmata? How about Crusades?); the deaf daughter's name is Ruby (she has a stud in her always exposed navel). Rubies are traditionally associated with India, and adorn the crown jewels. The father (whose given name is Michael), says, "Everyone calls me China." China? Well, that's a common name for a man; can't read anything into that.

The bar where much of the narrative takes place is peopled with German and Dutch characters, as well as the native Portuguese; the bartender's name is Vasco (the "da Gama" is understood); they discuss, among other things, the war in Iraq, a "terrible business," Vasco says, but it
"... has to be done. Everyone is saying to me, ‘Oh, they make the empire, these Americans.’ And I tell them, ‘Shut up, what do you know?’ Of course they make the empire. United States of America will not be threatened. We had a big empire, too.” Vasco turned purple and began to wheeze. It dawned on Stanton that he was laughing. “Five hundred years ago.”

I'm no authority on British history; those who are might laugh at this reading. But I believe that there's something here, because without some layered meaning, this story has no reason for existing.