Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saki in Singapore

The obvious choice of reading for a trip to Singapore must be Rudyard Kipling, one of the writers associated with Raffles Hotel which is named after Britain’s colonial administrator par excellence and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. I hadn’t got any Kipling with me, but I had got some Saki (Hector Hugh Munro). This seemed to me a decent substitute as both authors are associated with British colonialism. They were contemporaries; both were born in British colonies - Munro in Burma and Kipling in India; both endured unhappy English childhoods away from their parents; both returned to the land of their birth when they were adults; and both wrote original and exotic short stories – though only one of them was brilliant, and that was Kipling.

However, it was Saki’s stories I had with me: The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914). The tales are often cruel, and not only because they are set in a world insensitive to the suffering of other creatures where cub hunting and kitten drowning pass without comment. Dreadful things happen to possibly but not necessarily dreadful people: a gypsy child is eaten by a hyena, a woman is blinded, another is gored to death. They are wonderful exercises in table turning and hypocrisy exposing, often by the use of practical jokes played on the foolish or greedy. As is the way of practical jokes, the ruses are often nasty.

Saki is a dab hand at overthrowing expectations: although the stories are located in the most civilised settings imaginable – clubs and drawing rooms - there is an undertone of savagery. Many have magical or supernatural elements: politicians are replaced by angels, animals talk, Pan plays his pipes. At their best the stories are very funny. In Tobermory, Lady Blemley’s cat learns to talk, with embarrassing consequences for the household for he is not a discreet cat. His favourite promenade is “a narrow ornamental balustrade…in front of most of the bedroom windows…whence he could watch the pigeons - and heaven knew what else besides” .

Practical jokes – talking cats – angels: there’s the spirit of a child in Saki’s stories, but it’s not a charming one. The boy who points out the Emperor’s nakedness is an innocent, but the child in Saki is a mean little beast. You could imagine him pulling the legs off spiders. His stories are irreverent, witty, satirical; they are also nasty, spiteful, insensitive (see, for instance, the treatment of the Jewish couple in A Touch of Realism). No kindness tempers Saki’s vision; he is a compassionless recorder of human folly. Of course, writers don’t have to have bleeding hearts: too much sympathy and you end up with sentimental mush.

The western front was no place for sentimental mush and it was perhaps here that Saki’s literary ruthlessness came into its own in his exquisite description of birds on the battle ground. The prose is precise, the observation sharp, the refusal to privilege the merely human typical of a writer whose urbane settings are constantly threatened by wild beasts, pagan gods, inhuman forces. Yet the effect is deeply moving.

“At the corner of a stricken wood (which has had a name made for it in history, but shall be nameless here), at a moment when lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire swept and raked and bespattered that devoted spot as though the artillery of an entire Division had suddenly concentrated on it, a wee hen-chaffinch flitted wistfully to and fro, amid splintered and falling branches that had never a green bough left on them. The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may well have wondered why anything having wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place. There was a battered orchard alongside the stricken wood, and the probable explanation of the bird’s presence was that it had a nest of young ones whom it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert.”

(From The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, Graeme Gibson.)

Munro welcomed the war, and had nothing good to say for pacifists. He enlisted although he did not have to (he was 43). He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914) are available from Project Gutenberg

Read The Guardian blog on Saki

And Neil Clark in The Telegraph

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