Warwick's Reviews > A Passage to India

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
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bookshelves: fiction, india, colonialism, raj

‘The past! the infinite greatness of the past!’ thrilled Walt Whitman in ‘A Passage to India’. A quarter of a century later, Forster borrowed Whitman's title, but with a very different mood in mind. In place of the American's wild-eyed certainties, Forster gives us echoes and confusion; instead of epic quests of the soul, there is only an eternal impasse of personal and cultural misunderstanding.

Animals and birds are half-seen, unidentified; the landscape is a featureless blur; motives are illogical and rest on miscommunication. All human language, in the final analysis, amounts to nothing more than the dull ou-boum thrown back from the Malabar caves during the fateful expedition at the heart of the novel. ‘If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same – “ou-boum”.’

Will Self once recommend as an exercise reducing a novel to a single word (he suggested in the case of The Naked Lunch, for instance, that it would be ‘insect’). For A Passage to India, that keyword would be ‘muddle’ – a term that recurs, gradually shedding its cosiness and accreting a sense of existential indistinctness, a kind of cosmic flou that renders good intentions, indeed all human endeavour, futile. ‘I like mysteries,’ says Mrs Moore, the novel's moral core, ‘but I rather dislike muddles.’ Elsewhere, Forster talks with something like dread of a ‘spiritual muddledom’ for which ‘no high-sounding words can be found’.

The plot of this book is, at times, heart-poundingly dramatic, but Forster is careful to make sure that even this is founded on doubt and indecision. In fact, what one thinks of as ‘the plot’ of A Passage to India is a storyline that arises, reaches its climax, and is resolved entirely within the second of the book's three acts. What then, you might ask, is the point of parts one and three? Well, among other things they prevent the plot from seeming too tidy – there is always something before the beginning, something after the end, to frustrate neat conclusions. ‘Adventures do occur,’ he says, ‘but not punctually.’ Life isn't tidy – it's a muddle.

British India is a perfect setting for this kind of exploration: not only does it play host to numerous individual confusions, it is itself, as it were, the political embodiment of such a confusion. One of the wonderful things about this book is that the obvious hypocrisy and conflict between the English and the Indians is not left to stand alone, as a heavy-handed message, but is echoed by similar divisions between Muslim and Hindu, man and woman, young and old, devotee and atheist. Still, it is the gulf of understanding between the British rulers and their Indian subjects that provides the most interesting material for Forster's bitter social comedy. Most of the Brits are deliciously dislikable, couching their racism in patriotic slogans, droning through the national anthem every evening at the Club, and – like one of the wives – learning only enough of the language to speak to the servants (‘so she knew none of the politer forms, and of the verbs only the imperative mood’).

The heroes of this book are those that try to reach across this divide, or to challenge the assumptions of their own side.

‘Your sentiments are those of a god,’ she said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

Trying to recover his temper, he said, ‘India likes gods.’

‘And Englishmen like posing as gods.’

These attempts don't work, and the reason they don't work is that cultural or racial divides are – the book suggests – only a special case of that ‘spiritual muddledom’ that is a universal constant. Still, the worldview isn't as bleak as it might seem. That famous ‘not yet’ in the book's closing lines is a lot more hopeful than a ‘no’, and if we're prevented from coming together by our tangled and violent past, that also raises the possibility that a better future can be laid down by the present we choose to enact now, every day, with each other. ‘For what is the present, after all,’ as Walt Whitman asked, ‘but a growth out of the past?’
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Reading Progress

August 12, 2017 – Started Reading
August 12, 2017 – Shelved
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: fiction
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: india
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: colonialism
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: raj
August 17, 2017 –
page 217
57.71% "Holy shit that courtroom scene."
August 18, 2017 –
page 259
68.88% "“There is always trouble when two people do not think of sex at the same moment.”"
August 18, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Issicratea (new)

Issicratea Great review! It makes me want to revisit this novel (and to try out the Will Self one-worder exercise for myself.)

Warwick Thanks Issi, I can imagine this benefits a lot from a second reading – he seems to set up so many callbacks and foreshadowings…

message 3: by Glenn (last edited Aug 20, 2017 04:21AM) (new)

Glenn Russell Thanks, Warwick.

Fine review of a classic. My Will Self one-worder for this one is: Maya.

Warwick Cheers Glenn. I've been doing this exercise all day in my head since I wrote that! It's a good parlour game…

Paul Bryant Great review. My one word for Will Self, by the way, is : avoid.

Warwick Heh.

message 7: by Jaidee (new)

Jaidee This is a wonderful review Warwick. I must re-read this one !!

Warwick Thanks, did you ever review it? You must be about the only person on my friends list who hasn't! This was my first EMF, and on the strength of this I like him very much.

message 9: by Jaidee (new)

Jaidee Warwick wrote: "Thanks, did you ever review it? You must be about the only person on my friends list who hasn't! This was my first EMF, and on the strength of this I like him very much."

No Warwick. I read all his books when I was 17 or so. I have only reviewed books that I have read in the last three years or so.

I love his writing especially A Room with a View and Maurice.

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