BEHIND WORDS - An author without a home

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  • Published 17.09.10


Perhaps one of the chief pleasures of reading literature is the chance of discovery it still offers. Although it might not always be possible to share the young Keats’s sense of profound wonder at having found Chapman and his Homer, the world of literature yet affords minor miracles. These might take the form of authors you’ve never heard of but whose writings suddenly surprise you with their brilliance. Aubrey Menen proved to be one such. His novels, with their keen wit, irreverence and humour, have been a discovery for me. I now wish I knew more about their author regarding whom I can retrieve so little information from the available sources.

Notwithstanding the foreign-sounding name, Salvator Aubrey Clarence Menen was half-Indian, his father being a high-caste Hindu from Malabar married to an Irishwoman. He was born in 1912 in London, attended University College in that city, worked for the Indian government during the Second World War, returned to London when the war ended, and died in Thiruvananthapuram in 1989. Summing up his life spent shuttling between two countries and cultures, Menen’s obituary in The New York Times (February 23, 1989) described him as the “Indian Critic, Novelist and Essayist from Britain”.

Probably as a result of being an heir to at least three cultures at the same time, Menen belonged to none. Contemporary diasporic writers may take their deracination very seriously and make soppy novels out of it, but not Menen. He has only unadulterated laughter, ranging from the genial to the downright mean, reserved for both British and Indian follies. The necessary detachment from which such laughter springs can be the prerogative only of one who is resigned to having no country of his own.

All the four novellas in this collection —The Prevalence of Witches (1947), A Conspiracy of Women (1965), The Fig Tree (1959) and The Abode of Love (1956) — show the workings of an incurably sceptical mind that is always more interested in ideas than in reality, delights in absurdity, shies away from emotions, and is mildly misanthropic. This would naturally put Menen in the company of someone like Swift. But Menen’s sarcasm is never as deadly as Swift’s, being tempered with warm-hearted affection for those whom he satirizes. Moreover, the author of the novellas seems to be always laughing at himself, quite ruthlessly at times, even though none of them, except The Prevalence of Witches, uses the autobiographical voice.

In fact, the self-deprecating author, who desires a life of uncontaminated thought and then derides himself for being stuck-up, and who would prefer the Platonic ideal of same-sex companionship to the muddle of heterosexual love, is an unmistakable presence in all the novellas. Having rejected the countries given to him by birth and then by upbringing, Menen comes to inhabit the fictional space he creates in his works. This is Limbo, the dusty, forgotten, savage place, possibly modelled on an Indian village, where The Prevalence of Witches, in particular, is set. “On the map it was as beautifully round as it was blank.” This blankness, literal as well as moral, would make Limbo the real backdrop of the remaining three novellas, even if one is set in ancient Greece (A Conspiracy of Women), one in Italy (The Fig Tree), and the last (The Abode of Love) in England.

But again, unlike in Swift, there is no disparity of scales in Menen’s Limbo, for all its inhabitants — the ruler and the ruled, the intellectual and the illiterate, the reasonable and the passionate, the rich and the penniless — are fools, if not holy, then neither unholy. In The Prevalence of Witches, if there is a difference between the bungling British administrators, huffing and puffing in their ridiculous costumes, and the half-naked, poker-faced inhabitants of Limbo, it lies in the fact that the former “hold the arquebus [gun]” and the Limbodians don’t. But the savages, who are anything but noble, do have a slight edge over their rulers in that they are freer, morally. “These people have no sense of sin at all. They can’t have, because evil is due, wholly and all the time, to witches, and it is plainly absurd to blame a man for being the victim of a witch.” The Limbo of Menen’s work is pagan territory, as devoid of the Christian idea of vice as of virtue.

The upside-down world of Limbo is best exemplified in the story of the missionary couple, Mr and Mrs Riggs, narrated by the “disgraceful castaway”, Sergeant Bunt, in The Abode of Love. The pious Riggses are outraged by the wickedness prevailing in an island of “heathens”. Untainted by Christian morality, the islanders mate behind bushes when they are seized by the urge, which is symbolized appropriately by a flower the loving couples wear on their heads before the act. As a result, “The island swarmed with little darlings who you might call orphans and then again you might not.” As part of their sanctimonious mission to make the islanders realize their sinfulness, the Riggses first teach the heathens English, a language “pretty rich in words for wickedness”. Naturally, the heathens quickly learn — to curse — and when they catch the Riggses making love without the all-important flowers gracing their heads, the poor missionaries are branded “Har-lot!”, “Pig!”, “Dirty”, “Vile!”, and driven out of the island.

What emerges from the novellas is the mutual inability of peoples to get others’ points of view. When cultures clash, the gun comes handy for the more powerful race, but Menen is more interested in its subtler version, language. Since there is no real evil in this satirist’s world, the attempt to make language serve the purpose of the superior races only results in hilarious situations, such as the one involving the Riggses. Yet sooner or later, the laughter subsides, as it must. In the ensuing silence, one feels the presence, if not of evil, then of darker emotions like loneliness and disenchantment that have been kept carefully concealed behind the banter. The creator of Limbo — the man who collects worlds and owns none — is trapped in his solitude. But with a primness that is unmistakably British, he would rather make fun of himself than acknowledge his need.

Aldous Huxley was one of Menen’s favourite authors and his Limbo is perhaps a tribute to Huxley’s first collection of short fiction, Limbo (1920). Menen’s heroes (never heroines) are much like Huxley’s — emotionally challenged, diffident beings who cannot voice their desires even if they can conquer the world (Emperor Alexander in A Conspiracy of Women) or win the Nobel (Harry Wesley in The Fig Tree). Huxley promised in the introduction to his novel, Antic Hay (1923), that his books would be his autobiography. It would not be wrong to say the same of Menen’s works. As I read his rambling novels, where characters are introduced and then forgotten, where there are abrupt and bewildering changes of scene, and which are littered with false endings, I had the sense that they were not so much about different people as about certain ideas of the author. Menen seems to be writing himself into his works, questioning his convictions, or their lack, prodding his insecurities, dismissing them, and then trying to hide behind words.

But for all the pleasures of piecing together an author from his novels, a niggling query remains, one that can be answered only by a possible biographer. Who is Philip Dallas, to whom three of the four novellas are dedicated? Was he someone like Alexander’s Hephaestion (A Conspiracy of Women), the lonely conqueror’s only friend and companion with whom his wives could never compete, and who speaks some of the lines that are almost shocking in their poignancy, given the general frigidity of Menen’s tone? “‘When Alexander and I were eleven,’ said Hephaestion, ‘we decided that by thirty we would certainly have conquered Persia and most probably Egypt. The problem was what we would do at thirty-one. I remember we decided that the only fitting thing for two such great men would be to be dead.’” I keep speculating about the mysterious dedicatee.