Bear, Books, British Empire, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Going Native, Imperialism, Iran, Literary criticism, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, Sarban, Subaltern Studies, Tabriz, The Khan, Unreliable Narrator, Weird Fiction
Let us join Sarban at the Café Novin for a story. John William Wall wrote “The Khan” in the spring of 1948, whilst stationed as the British Consul to Casablanca, and this story would be included in his first volume of fiction, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951). “The Khan” explores the scrupulous diplomat’s deepest fear – that of “going native.”
Once, one could found an empire upon the fear of “going native.” This originally prerogative term conveyed abandoning a civilised sensibility – one which would be at home anywhere in the empire – for a lesser and characteristically local subjectivity. To take the nearest definition to hand – from the Queen’s University of Belfast’s “Imperial Archive” – the concept of “going native” would erect an existential fortification for colonisers who found themselves besieged by alternative cultures:
In today’s liberal and anti-racist society, ‘going native’ is understandably considered a derogatory and offensive term. The image of Africa as a savage, primitive territory is after all a predominantly Western construction and is due in large part to the tendencies of Europeans to judge other cultures unreasonably according to their own distinctly Western standards of what constitutes civilisation. This prejudiced position not only completely ignores the accepted notion of cultural and historical specificity, but also the fact that foreign cultures often live according to their own traditional, sometimes tribal, belief systems.
In “The Khan,” a wayward Westerner abandons her civilisation and a lot of her clothing to consort with the Persian natives. She leaves her husband to live, or so it seems, in “conjugal relations” with a bear. The symbolism is unavoidable, the implications outrageous: liberty amongst the natives is as disgusting as having sex with a bear. Yet “The Khan” is not quite a white supremacist “Goldilocks.” Far from warning against “going native,” this story offers a complex interpretative game, which may trick the reader into bartering reality for illusion at Sarban’s bazaar and “going native” themselves.
Our story begins in the city of Tabriz, which had in 1946 acted briefly as the capital of a breakaway Communist republic, under the aegis of Soviet expansion. Wall was serving as Acting Consul General in Tabriz, and Britain refused to recognise the new splinter government. He claimed that he was never in much danger, but he must have been vulnerable to Communist reprisals. Moreover, given the panics of the time, a less circumspect President than Truman could have dropped a nuclear bomb on the new republic.
But just sit back, or at least try to perch comfortably on that dodgy chair as it brokers its “compromise with gravity.” The price of tea here has risen “some 500 per cent”; the waiter looks as if “his knees will not serve him the night through.” On the menu are “long fillets of steak which look as if they have been hammered out to that particular shape.” The tumultuous revolutionary city waiting outside will continue to be governed by the calm voice of England, its fortunes narrated with the suave authority of the BBC and the merry good humour of PG Wodehouse. When Sarban remarks airily that, “I ought to let my cook and houseboy know that I am not coming home to dinner,” Communism seems scarcely to have perturbed the cosy certainties of the British Empire.
Sarban at first provides an inexplicably disembodied commentary, but his expertise is applied far from objectively. Tabriz is effectively reduced to a cartoon in his hands. Amongst the city’s architecture, “the very multiplicity of variations on the theme of decay produces an effect of dingy uniformity.” Sarban gives up on the buildings and begins to comment on the trees, but the few trees to be found in this city turn out to be just as gloomy. The pigeons wheeling over the park are preferable to its civic art. This city is encrusted upon a landscape of death, where “all things fall away and die into the lifeless waters of salt Lake Urmia.”
In real life, Lake Urmia plays host to huge flocks of migrating flamingos, but these creatures have been banished from Sarban’s version of events. Perhaps this is just the Empire speaking: unimpressed with how the natives do things, the “drabness” and untidiness of a city which has wandered from imperial order. A passing mention of the “British and American Consulates” finally slips Sarban into his own story, but as a representative of the Allies, he is not merely scoffing from the side-lines. He has a hand in this city’s destiny. In less than a year, “British and American” pressure would scotch the Soviet’s ambitions and hand Tabriz back to Iran.
Sarban compares the size of Tabriz to the “standards of Iran,” indicating what he thinks of the “autonomous” government. In his eyes, the Kurds are “sour” and secretive – losers even in their fleeting moment of national triumph. Their “national dress” is “uniform black,” making them look like mourners even whilst they are seizing their independence. Although Sarban prefers the “ferocious purpose” of the moderniser Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, his own government had also toppled this leader.
From the offset, even before one detects a whiff of that fabled bear, Sarban remains the Khagan (Khan of Khans) of this world. If, as we learn in the desert, humanity “dances… no more importantly than a mote in the dust of a barn” in the sunlight, this corresponds with the efforts of the natives in the face of British diplomatic power. Like that bear in Aarvold’s camp, Sarban walks enchanted amongst the native men. On the streets of Tabriz, nobody can harm him.
A consummate diplomat who can keep down the local “copper linings” vodka, Sarban may seem to be pleasantly sympathetic for an imperialist blowhard. But his moments of congeniality towards Tabriz always serve his nation’s agenda. He may portray the bazaar in traditional terms, as a magical place of warm scents and “snug lives.” Unexpectedly dipping into poetry, Sarban dwells vividly upon a single shaft of light which pierces the bazaar to touch “precisely one melon” and kindle it “to a golden globe of fire.” But these concessions are intended to rebound upon the Communists who now run Tabriz. The bazaar’s merchants have fled; the warm heart of the city has stopped beating.
In remarking approvingly that the traditional Tabrizi merchant “does not flaunt his wealth,” Sarban marks him out as his Empire’s sort of Tabrizi: modest, humble, and unthreatening. The Communists, on the other hand, arrogantly presume to assert their own version of truth as the real thing, without regard for the old imperial certainties:
My own practice is to read the newspapers; not, of course, in the hope of finding an occasional deviation into truth, but because it is generally possible to guess at the reason why the authorities took the trouble to print any particular lie.
There is no standardised written language in Tabriz, rendering the “national tongue of Azerbaijan” inferior as a means of communication. Sarban approves of his native interpreter standing “supported not by a rickety rail half rusted from the wall of a ramshackle cinema in a slum of Asia, but by England and the incorruptible order of all her imperial years.” But the challenge of “The Khan” is that innate English order may not be “incorruptible.” English may no longer be the natural language of truth. Whilst Sarban will not remain anything other than impervious to formal Communist propaganda, some native “Persian credulity,” the informal whispering of the subaltern, may penetrate English Literature through his writing.
Perhaps British imperialism is more receptive to native truths, or else the Empire has grown so decrepit that its literature can be undermined in ways that the Communist system would not countenance. The inability of Communism to reflect the language of the native subaltern may in this context bestow answers to the questions which would be posed in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988):
For the “true” subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself; the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation. The problem is that the subject’s itinerary has not been traced so as to offer an object of seduction to the representing intellectual… the question becomes, How can we touch the consciousness of the people, even as we investigate their politics? With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak?
The subaltern’s tragedy is that their voice can be only recorded in the alien and potentially distorting words of the coloniser, whether Soviet or British. Yet Sarban transforms this tragedy into a comedy of infiltration, in which “Persian credulity” smuggles itself into English literature whilst Sarban simultaneously connives to exploit these potentially “seductive” materials for his own ends.
Sarban can spot the approaching imposter, through his disguise of “a smart figure of a perfectly educated Persian.” Sarban refuses to believe “The Khan” when it is told by a Persian – even one who “wore spats and understood the Exchange Control Regulations” – but he will listen when it is repeated by Niels Truelsen, an English-educated Dane, whose “English is indistinguishable from an Englishman’s.” Truelsen’s surname may provide an anagram of “true lens,” but his whole name (minus the initial disguising N) is actually an anagram of “true lens lies.” Sarban will retell Truelsen’s story with some native flavouring:
…seeing the actress of his tale moving across my own memories of the Persian mountains in summer. If some parts of the tale are a little obscure, well, Chillow Kibab and Altmish Alti together induce a certain sluggishness. I may have nodded once or twice.
Sarban recounts this story with the intention of illustrating “Persian credulity,” but in his hands it both comes to life and loses its authenticity. He may doze off during “The Khan,” but he has also supplied the sole means of recording it for posterity. This story is told within Tabriz, a city of miscommunication, with its unresponsive telephones and a “little elf” as Sarban’s messenger. Sarban apologises for the slipshod truth of the story and he lacks the memory or sincerity to narrate it faithfully. He has previously advertised his faulty memory when he found a “soiled” card in his wallet bearing the name of an Irish aristocrat and it failed to trigger the associated adventure.
In the absence of verifiable truth, Sarban may have substituted the story’s errant details with some characteristics of his own. Ranhild’s husband Aarvold has, like Sarban, “knocked about all over the world,” engineering marvels in the same way that Sarban has concocted some marvellous stories. The confusion between the narrator and the narrated is echoed in the conflation of Ranhild’s “husbands.” Although likened to a “bull” and a “mole,” Aarvold is physically bearlike and he digs tunnels with his “bear” hands. After losing authority over the camp, he leaves to get a gun; Ranhild’s bear cub is equally marginalised and he departs the camp in the opposite direction. Superimposing a sense of Sarban’s own crooked narration over those of his two characters, Aarvold’s speech is peppered with blanks – “Blow that blank blank bear’s blank brains out!” – whilst the afternoon quiet of the camp is likewise broken by the “bear’s bad language.”
The characters of Sarban, Aarvold and the bear have all polluted each other, bidding us to be suspicious of Sarban’s ability to faithfully portray real characters. If it took time for Sarban to personally appear within his own disembodied account of Tabriz, Niels likewise makes a late, surprise appearance in a story which Sarban seems to have otherwise appropriated. There is an allusion in passing to how Ranhild “…dropped in and drank tea with us.” The story ends with a vague reference to Ranhild possibly divorcing her husband(s) for Niels, who remarks that, “I wasn’t afraid of Aarvold and I was in love with her.” As with Sarban’s covert diplomacy, there is undoubtedly a clandestine agenda underpinning Niels’ own storytelling. He may resemble the detached raconteur, who scarcely sets foot inside his own story, but he wishes to exploit (to put it politely) Ranhild just as Sarban was scheming against Tabriz.
One here resorts to Sarban’s own maxim: “it is generally possible to guess at the reason why the authorities took the trouble to print any particular lie.” We may blandly accept that Ranhild’s story presents a narrative impossibility. Take, for example, her brooding over the Khan’s trees:
Dwarfed, crabbed, stunted and toughened by adversity, they were like a most ancient people, driven by invaders into the heights of a harsh land, there to cling with invincible will to their own mode of life, their own mysteries.
But who is thinking these thoughts? Neither Sarban nor Niels accompanied Ranhild into the wilderness, whilst she herself has apparently gone AWOL with a bear. Yet herein lies a mystery and a solution. Sarban’s genius is not merely to colonise Niels’ tale with his own imperial agenda, but to trick the reader into collaborating with him.
Sarban begins with a synopsis in which Ranhild was “abducted” by a bear and then “restored to her rightful owner,” but he then proceeds to tell a completely different story, which describes neither an abduction nor a recovery. Nor, for that matter, does it describe a “bear.” What awaits Ranhild in the mountain farmstead is instead “a shape” with a “mighty head,” green eyes, and flashing teeth. There is a massive build up to a story which goes out like a candle. The spectre of a bear emerges from a synchrony of dancing shadows, but it is never directly illuminated. Why should the “shape” at the end of the tale be anything other than a fat-headed peasant farmer? Perhaps only because we have collaborated with Sarban to unleash a bear from our own prejudices and racism, transforming an ordinary Iranian native into a disgusting animal.
Ranhild could have been “abducted” by a bear on her departure from the farmstead. Or she could have been seized by Niels, who shadowed her and observed the farmstead, allowing him to describe it so faithfully. Or Sarban may be simply wandering off into a fantasy of his own, just as Ranhild had drifted away from Aarvold’s camp. In other words, an exploitative scheming may be concealed within the Khan’s bearlike shadow. When Sarban inquires about Ranhild’s fate, Niels pronounces “God knows!” He may know as well, of course.
Sarban may have clothed the underdressed Ranhild in his own fictions. Her journey recalls something of the temptation of Christ, not least in that line about “those relentless rays in which our whole round world… dances.” In Matthew’s gospel, Christ had travelled to a mountain in which all the kingdoms of the world could be seen. A different gospel of Ranhild, or a different narrator of this story, may not have mentioned those mountains which are suspended toppling, rather like the British Empire. Ranhild may be purer than Christ – she rides a pony rather than a donkey, and in the wilderness, she stops by a spring to eat her “sandwiches.”
Or perhaps the Acting British Consul has contaminated this story with an old favourite: the British nursery tale of “Goldilocks.” Sarban recounts how, “this peculiar household had aroused all her curiosity; she felt a great desire to peep into the other rooms.” Intruding into the bear’s bedroom (“who has been sleeping in my bed”?) she fingers his (“too big!”) toilet articles with a “guilty haste.” Yet just as Goldilocks had famously squirmed in the wrong chair, she will not quite fit into Ranhild’s story. Goldilocks was an intruder, who had awakened in a strange bed to the sight of bears, whereas Ranhild is welcomed at the farmstead and, for all we know, she may end up going to bed with a bear.
The arrival at the Khan’s farmstead signifies the ending of Ranhild’s story: all miscommunication is negated. The farmstead is a place of hypnogogic clarity, as is exemplified in its “bare earth most scrupulously swept.” Here, subaltern truths can whisper in idle moments and in the apparently inconsequential details of the storytelling. In contrast to Sarban’s earlier strident imperial voice, there is no Otherness or incommensurability at the farmstead. Ranhild and the servant girl understand each other without language. Ranhild and the Khan’s wife at first struggle to communicate, but their pidgin Persian soon becomes as effortless as English. When the old woman tells Ranhild, “That is the Khan’s place,” with her “peculiar, triumphant smile,” her triumph may lie in the fact that language is no longer a barrier. It could be that our narrator, Sarban, has completely colonised this story with his own language and agenda. But if his imperial narrative invites us to rejoice in a racist fantasy, its written form also licences interpretive uncertainties: the subaltern whispering back.
We find poor Sarban spooked at the end of his story. His imperial certainties have been either lost or enriched in a story which may have at some point “gone native.” Frightened by the ghost of some otherworldly light as he flees for “home,” he has to convince himself “with a passing sense of relief, that it is objective.”