Empire writes back

I have always liked to spot obscure literary references and easter eggs in books or movies, but It would seem that I am now developing a serious sweet tooth for a full-blown pastiche. Today I went through of The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu pretty much in one sitting (bar a couple of naps) and I must say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The premise of the book lies in what is known among the many fans of Sherlockiana as the Great Hiatus — a period between 1891, when Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his intrepid detective along with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty in The Adventure of the Final Problem to 1894, when the author finally caved in to the persistent requests by his readers as well as publishers and brought Sherlock Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House. Upon his return from what turned out a faked death and while explaining the ever baffled Dr. Watson what had happened, Sherlock Holmes gave a brief mention of having

… travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa , and spending some days with head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure it never occurred to you that you were receiving news from your friend.

Just like another fine example of literary pastiche that I have reviewed here, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is actually a homage to two writers — Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling (with some additional traces of H. Rider Haggard). The book is a treasure trove of references to and direct quotes from both authors — literally dozens of them — and I am no expert on either, so there must be plenty that I missed. But before we get to Kipling, it would be a good idea to take a bit closer look at the body of 56 stories that form the canon of Sherlock Holmes.

watson&holmes.jpg

As anyone who has read any of them no doubt remembers, the stories (with only four exceptions) are narrated in first person by Dr. Watson. This is of course a very deliberate choice that has a profound effect on the way how the stories read. For one thing, it establishes a distance between the reader and the famous detective. Sherlock Holmes remains opaque, which of course is helpful in terms of maintaing the suspense — but this is not all there is to it. Dr. Watson, the unwary and innocently oblivious protagonist of the series, is a stand-in for the late 19th century British citizenry that, for all their goodnatured trust in the greatness of their increasingly frail-looking empire were beset by uncomfortable questions, a general sense of decay and perhaps outright dangers that came in many different guises. The institutions of the state, such as aristocracy or Scotland Yard, were very much caught in the same predicament and therefore could offer little comfort. The fight that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson are caught up in is not just that of catching nefarious villains by the incredible powers of deduction and skills of observation of the famous detective — it is a cosmic conflict between the good and evil, where we, along with Dr. Watson, are being kept safe by a kind of Victorian version of Batman.

But there is another peculiar thing about Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion. Despite of them being close friends, they in fact represent two conflicting views of the world. Fearless Mr. Holmes, a living example of enlightenment ideals, is rational to the boot and shuns idle speculation and emotions. Dr. Watson, however, is clearly a romantic. At one point, Watson’s emotional depiction of events leads his friend to lecture him:

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story…Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.

This is a tension that underpins not only their relationship but in fact the whole narrative structure of Sherlockiana — and has, by the way, carried on all the way to Mulder and Scully in X-Files. There could be a lot more said on this particular topic, but by now it is enough to have established that Dr. Watson is much more than simply a narrator. He is one half of the composite character — and the half that we can and should relate to. And this leads us back to Kipling.

Norbu’s story of Sherlock Holmes is told by words of Huree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali spy and scholar out of a well-regarded novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It is Kipling’s character that assumes the place of Watson for the rest of the story — and this turns out it is an ingenious move, as it also alters the perspective. The Mandala that begins as a skillful and honest homage to Sherlock Holmes slowly turns into something else. Despite of both of his sources being Victorian and colonial, Norbu’s novel manages to put a very interesting twist to them. The Empire that in Concan Doyle and Kipling is either an exotic backdrop or source of a threatening menace acquires a voice of its own as our access to the narrative and the point of association is provided through a babu of Indian origin rather than a British doctor. This has some far-reaching ramifications, all of which might not be to the best liking to the fans of original Sherlock Holmes — but as I said, this is not simply a story of what Mr. Holmes did in Tibet during his “missing years”. It is a case of the Empire writing back and appropriating the two most famous and well-loved colonial writers to serve the ends of the colonized, and as such it is truly well executed.

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