This book deals with India, early in the 1800s. Napoleon and Wellington are still battling it out in the Peninsular War, on the other side of the world. The French have a football in Pondicherry, and are hoping to extend their Indian holdings. But the chief encroachers on the Mogul Empire are, of course, the British -- "John Company" nibbling away, annexing, acquiring lands from Mysore, from Oudh, from Sindhia, from the Gaikwar, forcing subsidiary alliances on reluctant Indian princes, enlarging their territorial sphere by fair means or foul, mostly foul. The British are a long way from the end of that strange symbiosis, that juxtaposition of two utterly different ways of life, begun by Queen Elizabeth I, who chartered the East India Company in 1600, and not terminated until the mid-20th century.
Stephen Alter, whose first novel, "Neglected Lives," was highly, deservedly praised, has made a shrewd choice of historical period for his second. The setting is plainly one with which he is well acquainted; he lives in Uttar Pradesh, India. And history, in a way, is only a background for the book; the reader is made aware of the inexorable, insensitive advance of the British across the continent that will presently toss them out again; history motivates the hero, that is its function.
Augustine, the main character of Silk and Steel," is the son of an English girl sent out to Bengal to marry a subaltern who dies before her arrival in Calcutta. Penniless, fascinated by India, she became the mistress of a Muslim trader and was subsequently captured and cherished by a Rajput general of high rank and wealth. Augustine, product of his union, is told by his mother that he will never be a Rajput, nor will he be English; he is himself.
Nonetheless, the boy repudiates his mother's race and turns fervently to that of his father. Proud, wild, intelligent, trained in soldierly arts from the earliest age by a savage little dwarf who insists that all pupils must hate and ultimately destroy their teachers, Augustine is a macho, mythological hero. From his mother he inherits a bizarre propensity to weep passionate tears, not from grief but from "a sense of greatness." Charlotte and her son often weep together in the zenana out of a shared feeling of grandeur and drama. Charlotte's rape and murder by two English officers just after the Rajput general has been killed in battle is the motivation for Augustine's subsequent behavior; but the reader is led to feel that his actions are inevitable; His story is set in a heroic pattern which would have formed whatever trigger mechanism. Augustine, determined on revenge, inflated by images of a world of grandeur and pageantry that hardly exists, takes service with a renegade general, Webley, in an army fighting against the British.
Stephen Alter builds the story of Augustine's campaign against a series of flashbacks which fill in his childhood history; the ferocity of Somdas, his teacher, the silk and gauze of the zenana, Bibi Charlotte's larger-than-life tales of northern heroes, Robin Hood, St. George -- "a world of woods and snow," contrasted with the tales of Rajput fighters that Augustine bears from soldiers in his father's regiment.
Webley, "general" of the army of mercenaries, is a self-destructive, neurotic kleptomaniac, given to wild orgies and week-long bouts of crazy drinking. Augustine's faith in his leader is shaken when Webley, brave but erratic, shows cowardice in battle and retreats, leaving his lieutenant in a dangerously exposed position. Webley and Augustine must then travel to Lucknow to raise money from the Nawab for further campaignig against the British.
There are some splendid descriptions of the extraordinary life led by the English in India: the men stubbornly wearing precisely the same costume as they would back in England, velvet coats, waistcoats, cravats, perukes (the Nawab demands and is given a peruke as a sop before he will advance money for the army). Middleclass English in Lucknow lead lives of fantastic luxury, drinking bottle after bottle of claret, gossiping, interdependent on their small community, yet always aware of the imminence of death, which by lightning sickness can dispatch any member of the group in a matter of hours. And yet they live in a nostalgic imitation of childhood, "that world of sweaty, boyish glory, a copybook existence where everything was more than real."
Considering that this is only his second novel, Alter's style is remarkably formed; it has much pungency, subtlety and individuality. His technique consists of alternately fast and slow movements -- like a baroque suite. Over passages of description he is leisurely in pace, and has a sharp eye, a telling turn of phrase: "The water stuttered as it fell on the rocks . . . . The first ferns were coiling out of the ground like tiny green serpents. The moss had a dank smell, like wet fur."
Then, when it is time for action -- and the book is full of action -- wildboar hunts, battles, suicides, the pace suddenly accelerates to such an extreme that each event is over almost before the reader has had time to grasp what is happening. A rape, a murder, someone being tied across the muzzle of a cannon to be shot to bits, an escape from a fort -- all these happenings are rattled out in as many paragraphs. Then the narrative slows down again to a thoughtful description of a prostitute who keeps under her bed a trunk full of the stories and pits from all the fruit she has ever eaten, which favored clients are sometimes allowed to inspect.
I thoroughly approve of these changes in pace -- it is the way, after all, that life is lived. Three pages of description give us a wealthy eunuch and his room -- or there is a long careful set piece detailing gladiatorial combats between exotic animals, tigers, leopards, boars, laid on by the Nawab to entertain his guests. Then -- whizz -- somebody's ear is cut off: "The ear he had been clutching came away with his hand. Then he held it to his head again, like a man holding a shell to his ear to hear its whisper. His scream was like a woman's, wild and cringing."
The plot, however, moves leisurely. Webley seduces an English woman in Lucknow and murders her husband. This seems like local color -- merely a pretext for presenting more of the fabulousness of India.
Stephen Alter has written a notable book, I'd put it beside J. G. Farrell's classic "The Siege of Krishnapur" as a presentation of the flavor and feeling of another timed, another continent; the grandeur of India conveyed in a hereoic fable.