Elite International Schools, Orwell and Adolescent Rebellion
George Orwell’s autobiographical essay Such, Such Were the Joys (1947) describing his days as a scholarship student at a British public school (Americans, read “an elite private boarding school”) drew an early and ominous parallel between totalitarianism and education. Re-reading Orwell, ten years after being introduced to his work in the comparatively idyllic setting of an elite international high school I realized how much I had internalized a blander, yet perhaps more insidious form of repression.
On the grounds of Crossgates (a pseudonym for St. Cybrian’s in Sussex), Orwell recalls a brutal regime lead by a man nicknamed Sim, and his wife Bingo. Their system had a practical purpose. To survive as a public school, Crossgates had to attract titled students (the sons of Lords), wring money from wealthy but untitled students (sons of merchants and barristers), and extract as many scholarship wins to Eton and other prestigious public schools as possible from promising but poor students like Orwell, who was the son of an aged civil servant.
Sim and Bingo basked in the reflected status of the aristocrats, lived off the merchants’ monies and attracted the business of the latter two by getting the brainy poor to win prestigious slots. To maximize their rate of return from each category of student, Bing and Sim enforced a rigid caste system.
Aristocrats were doled out six pence a week for sweets and encouraged to take splendid extracurricular activities like horse-riding and shooting. Unlike the merchant and scholarship boys, aristocrats never received corporal punishment and their bodies were considered sacrosanct – a miserable lordlet dripping a long trail of mucus onto his plate during school dinner was patted fondly on the back, while eight-year-old Orwell was flayed for bedwetting. Regular students received three pence and Orwell’s lot, only two. Paying students received cake for their birthdays, while Orwell was discouraged by his headmaster from purchasing items – such as cricket bat or model airplane – that were considered above his station. Even their diets were restricted.
Repression came from constant acknowledgement and underlining of this caste system, with the Masters calling out differences between the students, braced, here and there, with equal measures of corporal punishment and arbitrary affection. It was those insidious doses of affection that bound the system together. Orwell assumed, as no doubt all of his classmates did too, that, no matter how harsh the conditions at Crossgates, his professors had his best interests at heart. And they knew this and used it against them.
Scholarship boys were constantly menaced – “very early on it was impressed upon me that I had no chance of decent future unless I won a scholarship at a public school. Either I won my scholarship or I must leave school at fourteen and become, in Sim’s favorite phrase, ‘a little office boy at forty pounds a year.’”
But Orwell unpeels more than just mechanisms of discipline at work in his school. He acknowledges his own complicity. The brutal caste system would not have been possible without the willing participation of the students, including those at the bottom. By doling out occasional favors and rewarding snitches and bestowing “favor” Bingo and Sim kept the students perpetually embroiled in internecine conflict. Mere words were usually enough to manipulate them:
“There was ‘Buck up, old chap!’ which inspired one to paroxysms of energy; there was ‘Don’t be such a fool!’ (or, ‘It’s pathetic, isn’t it’), which made one feel a born idiot; and there was ‘It isn’t very straight of you, is it?’, which always brought one to the brink of tear. And yet all the while, at the middle of one’s heart, there seemed an incorruptible inner self who knew that whatever one did—whether one laughed or sniveled or went into frenzies of gratitude for small favours—one’s only true feeling was hatred.” (25-26)
The schoolboys sniveled and snitched on another, and competed for the affections of Bingo and Sim. Terrified and physically beaten into a frenzy of studying, Orwell excelled at his exams, earning places at Eton and Wellington. Yet once he was there he collapsed, resolving to slack off, and rebelled against the system completely, performing so poorly at Eton that he could not have gone on to Cambridge or Oxford without paying for a full ride. Instead he joined the Indian Imperial Police Force. “There was a time [after graduating Crossgates] for a bit of happiness before the future closed in upon me. But I did know the future was dark. Failure, failure, failure—failure behind me, failure ahead of me—that was by far the deepest conviction that I carried away.” (42)
My high school was built adjacent to the New Delhi American Embassy School’s residential compound, a sanitized version of a middle class United States’ suburb – complete with picket fences and a supermarket – designed to insulate its inhabitants from the teeming hordes outside. The school wasn’t built by the U.S. government and reflected something different. It was an architecturally ambitious, environmentally sound campus (imagine hexagonal rooms partially sunk in the native New Delhi chaparral). Considering how many of my fellow students ended up in academia or ensconced in well-paying, totally consuming positions within “campus-culture” information technology and finance companies, a corporate campus or research park is probably its closest analogue in the Western world.
Which is not to say the campus wasn’t extremely nice.
We strode along shaded cobblestone paths to class, we had chemistry labs, gymnasiums, tennis courts, two swimming pools, weight-rooms and cutaways where the native scrubland sprouted in aesthetically pleasing ways. There were ancient banyan trees to climb and the spiked fourteen-foot tall fence – to protect us from mobs – was carefully concealed behind hedges. Even school dinners in retrospect were not bad. There were veg and non-veg options, and as we became high schoolers, we were allowed to buy better, American things like hotdogs and hamburgers with chits at a special senior longue with billiard tables and music.
And the students, by any measure, were also very nice.
We students considered ourselves tame and mature. We were the sons and daughters of diplomats, of globetrotting industrialists or, more commonly in my grade, of parents worked at either the United Nations or the U.S. government’s official development office – the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Mine were journalists. It was not that we were meek, more that we deemed ourselves too mature for bullying and tomfoolery. Our gym teacher Mr. Ashit was never teased. And when I once tried to nickname a plump, popular theatre student named Miles, “Miles Wide,” it wasn’t so much that I was shunned as simply not understood.
The only real discomfort I ever felt at school was in the sixth grade, a few weeks after I had arrived, when I suddenly began receiving hundreds of roses for Valentine’s Day. At the time I assumed I was being singled out for public humiliation (having transferred from an Anglican school in Madrid where such incidents were isolated but not unheard of). When the Valentine-gram caper was cracked it turned out I wasn’t the intended victim, rather, my classmates were trying to make another student jealous. Or so the guilty parties said. I almost believe it.
We were completely cloistered. There were no subcultures on campus. No outside interference that wasn’t mediated by CNN or, later, Rupert Murdock’s StarTV. There was barely any sex. And then only between a pair of students in a long-term relationship, whose parents gleefully handed them condoms and encouraged them at it. (Or so I heard) Students’ families were all friends; they traveled the country in convoy. Good grades weren’t just encouraged, it was unthinkable not to achieve. We were nothing at all like the grotesque “Heroin Highs,” that some other South Asian international schools were rumored to be. My entire graduating class (of 47) went on to attend universities, although a fair number, myself included, failed spectacularly once we did arrive in the United States. Above all else there was an urgent, professional little hum running through us all, as if we all had somewhere very important to be very soon that we were all working for. Something bigger than us all.
The only trace of horror in our lives lay on a vacant lot beside the school. There was a jugghi across from our tennis court parking lots. This was a khaki-colored slum made of improvised materials, corrugated iron and scavenged bricks and plastic bags. It was extremely dense. From far away it looked like nothing, like a dried-up mud puddle cracking into pieces. But closer up there were maybe a thousand families were crammed into a space no bigger than the three tennis courts put together.
There was no official acknowledgement of the jugghi’s existence, no municipal utilities accessed it, and there was only a single hand-operated pump for water and a grate over an open drain for a sewer. Electricity (and later satellite television) was leached from overhead power lines. Yet the jugghi was the richest in town, having access to the American Embassy’s amble supply of imported garbage (scrap metal was a major source of income), and because of its proximity to concerned Westerners, it was protected from the occasional bulldozings and Flying Squad raids that bedeviled other slums.
Our facilities were well patrolled and there were never any unpleasant incidents to my knowledge from jugghi dwellers. A loose cigarette vendor or two was chased away from the premises. But nothing like a rape or mugging. We were far too protected and under constant surveillance for that to happen. And in a way it seemed inconceivable that one of them could do that. Their lives and ours were so distant it just did not seem possible.
Once a week, every Friday afternoon when school was done, except when there were major intramural tournaments, they let the slum-dwellers onto the school grounds. They trampled through, soaping themselves off with garden houses and playing soccer on our fields, and received medical care and goodies from good-natured students and teachers. Again there was no unpleasantness given the large numbers of guards on campus. An occasional eve teasing or salacious pinch from pubescent slum dweller but no greater transgression than that. (The program – “Reach-Out” – I believe was largely a women and children thing. Teenage boys and men were either at work during the day or kept away).
Why would anyone allow a jugghi to sprout up beside the American Embassy? If nothing else it was valuable land. Looking back at it now I wonder whether the jugghi served as the linchpin in a system as insidious as Bingo and Sim’s caste system. Maybe not intentionally but perhaps it helped give the school and its core community of aid workers and their little ilk authority. Charity is after all a way of demonstrating power and reinscribing hierarchies and the mindset at this international school was so rigid, perhaps it came from letting us teenagers feel like we had control over the lives of the miserable people living beside our school. Having them there implied that rebellion was ethically impossible. Or just completely beside the point. Childish. I certainly, illogically internalized the idea that misbehaving in light of the terrible misery just outside of our school would be unspeakably improper.
The curriculum of our junior year English class was dominated by two dystopias: Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s 1984, written after the second World War, imagines a world were three totalitarian governments (Anglo-American Oceania, Russo-European Eurasia and EastAsia) have carved the world into three tranches that they maintain control through constant low-level war. Brave New World, written in the roaring twenties, describes materialism run amok. Every decision is made for comfort, all is vain; all is shallow. Neither rebellious outcast protagonist managed to disrupt either system for long. And neither did I.
After reading Orwell I did try to rebel. But I always held back. I couldn’t bring myself to really lash out against the school as an edifice, as it seemed as though no matter what I thought, the work the school was doing was more important than I was. My rebellions were pushed into the abstract or into the self-destructive. Underground newspapers and using lacunae in the school’s bill of rights to refuse to participate in the United Nations Day march. Eventually I settled upon an affecting rightwing politics to antagonize my ‘prey.’ Annoying, certainly, and definitely distasteful to the authorities around me, but totally ineffective. I was ignored. Or at most, barred from attending events such as the Clinton visit and interviewing with the representatives of the various “Ivy Plus” schools we were supposedly being fast-tracked into.
The vast majority of graduates from my class thrived under this cloying, self-congratulating atmosphere. Most went from one smug system into another. Moving from school to college to life on a corporate campus. My “dissent” allowed me to blow off enough steam to let me graduate and get into a college – a vast state school, I was totally unsuited for, where, once I arrived, like Orwell, I completely shutdown. Like a clown fish adapted to live alongside the poisonous stings of a coral reef, I had built my entire persona around the intricacies of a tightly bound system without developing any tools to question it or overcome it. Once out of the international school and thrown anonymously into my homeland I was completely worthless. I became so nervous I lost the ability to speak without stuttering. I dropped and went limping back to the expatriate life until I could build up enough of a resume to bluff my way through American society. But others weren’t so lucky, at least one, who played the game better than I, and did manage to end up in a target school, where he decided to reinvent himself as drug dealing DJ, flunked out, and slowly stopped breathing one chilly Minneapolis night after an overdose.
Comments on “Bombardero,” Czar Gutierrez’s except in Issue 8 of NY Tyrant literary magazine… [LINK]
Pic via The Oil Drum, I think
While reading up on the Stuxnet worm — a USB spread malicious code that targets Siemens industrial control systems computers and has apparently mangled almost a third of the uranium centrifuges in Nantaz — I came across references to a pipeline explosion caused by a trojan horse. A three kiloton explosion..
The story was covered by William Safire in 2004. Throughout the 70s, the Soviets were back-engineering American computer hardware. They earned huge amounts of foreign currency when oil prices soared and the West was eager to buy oil and gas from them. They spent much of the money on a military technology buying spree, purchasing the latest Western technology through a vast network of shadowy third-party purchasing agents and intermediaries.
Through a French-run KGB colonel, CIA and NATO began distributing ” deliberately flawed designs for stealth technology and space defense… The technology topping the Soviets’ wish list was for computer control systems to automate the operation of the new trans-Siberian gas pipeline. When we turned down their overt purchase order, the KGB sent a covert agent into a Canadian company to steal the software; tipped off by Farewell, we added what geeks call a Trojan horse to the pirated product.”
“The pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines and valves was programmed to go haywire,” writes Gus Reed, “to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to the pipeline joints and welds. The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.” (NYTimes 2/4/2004)
GLOSSARY OF STANDARD OIL SPILL OBSERVATION TERMS
OIL COLOR AND APPEARANCE TERMS:
Sheen: Sheen is a very thin layer of oil (less than 0.0002 inches or 0.005 mm) floating on the water surface and is the most common form of oil seen in the later stages of a spill. According to their thickness, sheens vary in color from rainbows, for the thicker layers, to silver/gray for thinner layers, to almost transparent for the thinnest layers.
Metallic: The next distinct oil color, thicker than rainbow, that tends to reflect the color of the sky, but with some element of oil color, often between a light gray and a dull brown. Metallic is a “mirror to the sky.”
Transitional Dark (or True) color: The next distinct oil on water layer thickness after metallic, that tends to reflect a transitional dark or true oil color. At the “Transitional” stage, most of the oil will be just thick enough to look like its natural color (typically a few thousandths of an inch, or few hundredths of a millimeter), and yet thin enough in places to appear somewhat patchy.
Dark (or True) Color: Represents a continuous true oil color (i.e., its natural color), commonly occurring at thicknesses of at least a hundredth of an inch (or, a little over a tenth of a millimeter). Oil thickness at this “Dark” stage (especially in a calm and/or contained state) could range over several orders of magnitude. At sea, however, after reaching an equilibrium condition, most oils would not achieve an average thickness beyond a few millimeters. Heavy fuel oils and highly weathered or emulsified oils (especially on very cold water) could, of course, reach equilibrium states considerably greater than a few millimeters.
OIL STRUCTURE/DISTRIBUTION TERMS:
Streamers: Narrow bands or lines of oil (sheens, dark or emulsified) with relatively clean water on each side. Streamers may be caused by wind and/or currents, but should not be confused with multiple parallel bands of oil associated with “windrows,” or with “convergence zones or lines” commonly associated with temperature and/or salinity discontinuities.
Convergence Zone: A long narrow band of oil (and possibly other materials) often caused by the convergence of two bodies of water with different temperatures and/or salinities. Unlike “windrows” and “streamers,” commonly associated with wind, convergence zones are normally associated with the interface between differing water masses, or with the effects of tidal and depth changes that cause currents to converge due to density differences or due to large bathymetric changes. Such zones may be several kilometers in length, and consist of dark or emulsified oil and heavy debris surrounded by sheens.
Windrows: Multiple bands or streaks of oil (sheens, dark, or mousse) that line up nearly parallel with the wind. Such streaks (typically including seaweed, foam, and other organic material) are caused by a series of counter rotating vortices in the surface layers that produce alternating convergent and divergent zones. Sometimes referred to as Langmuir vortices (after a researcher in 1938), the resulting “windrows” begin to form with wind speeds of approximately six knots or more.
Patches: An oil configuration or “structure” that reflects a broad range of shapes and dimensions. Numerous “tarballs” could combine to form a “patch”; oil of various colors and consistency could form a patch or single layer 10s of cm to 10s (or even 100s) of meters in diameter; and a large patch of dark or rainbow oil could have patches of emulsion within it. Patches of oily debris, barely able to float with sediment/plants in them, might be called “tarmats,” circular patches at sea might be called “pancakes”; REALLY BIG patches might simply be called “continuous” slicks. But, they are all “patches.”
Tarballs: Discrete, and usually pliable, globules of weathered oil, ranging from mostly oil to highly emulsified with varying amount of debris and/or sediment. Tarballs may vary in size from millimeters to 20- 30 centimeters across. Depending on exactly how “weathered,” or hardened, the outer layer of the tarballs is, sheen may or may not be present.
No Structure: Random eddies or swirls of oil at any one or more thicknesses. This distribution of oil is normally the result of little to no winds and/or currents.
OTHER OIL SLICK TERMS:
Black oil: A black or very dark brown-colored layer of oil. Depending on the quantity spilled, oil tends to spread out quickly over the water surface to a thickness of about one millimeter. However, from the air it is impossible to tell how thick a black oil layer is. The minimum thicknesses for a continuous black oil layer would commonly be around a hundredth of an inch to about two tenth of a millimeter. Dark (or Black) oils just begin to look their natural color at around a thousandth of an inch (or, a few hundredths of a millimeter). See chart on page 10.
Dispersion: The breaking up of an oil slick into small droplets that are mixed into the water column as a result of sea surface turbulence. For response purposes, dispersed oil is defined as oil droplets that are too small to refloat back to the surface. The physical properties of the oil and the sea state are the main factors that determine how much oil is dispersed. Chemical dispersants can be used to change the chemical properties of the oil and enhance oil dispersion.
Emulsification: The formation of a water-in-oil mixture. The tendency for emulsification to occur varies with different oils and is much more likely to occur under high energy conditions (winds and waves). This mixture is frequently referred to as “mousse.” Emulsification will impact the cleanup by significantly increasing the volume and viscosity of the oil to be collected.
Entrainment: The loss of oil from containment when it is pulled under a boom by a strong current. Entrainment typically occurs from booms deployed perpendicular to currents greater than 3/4 knot.
Recoverable Oil: Oil that is in a thick enough layer on the water to be recovered by conventional techniques and equipment. Only black or dark brown oil, mousse, and heavy Metallic layers are generally considered thick enough to be effectively recovered by skimmers. Thinner films may be recoverable with sorbents and/or concentrated with booms or chemical herders to enhance their recovery.
Slick: Oil spilled on the water that absorbs energy and dampens out the surface waves making the oil appear smoother or “slicker” than the surrounding water. “Slicks” refer to oil layers that are thicker than Rainbow and Silver “sheens”. Natural slicks, from plants or animals, also may occur on the water surface and may be mistaken for oil slicks.
Weathering: A combination of physical and environmental processes such as evaporation, dissolution, dispersion, photo-oxidation, and emulsification that act on oil and change its physical properties and composition.
Graham Greene, an Mi6 correspondent during his days in Lagos, wrote that “espionage today is really a branch of psychological warfare. The main objective is to sow mistrust between allies in the enemy’s camp… The real value of the two scientists [Fuchs and Nunn May] to the Soviet was not from their scientific information but from their capture, and the breakdown in Anglo-American relations that followed. A spy allowed to continue his work without interference is far less dangerous than the spy who is caught.” (1968) Which brings us to “Anne Chapman” et al.
Given their limited access, it seems likely that the spies apprehended were running agents and transmitting material – what has come to light seems of little value, and was unlikely to have been classified at all: airport diagrams, discussions of ground penetrating small yield nuclear weapons – so why, after ten years of investigation, bother busting them at all? Besides the personal snaps of the winsome staff of Future Map Advisory Services LLC., the salient feature of the news coverage surrounding the spies has been their gross incompetence. Their clumsy craft (invisible inks, dead drops, ludicrous code words etc.), their pathetic approaches – it hardly seems worth ten years of investigation. A few observers (see editorials) suggested it was a carefully timed ploy to disrupt strategic arms limitation talks ahead of G20, or perhaps force Russia’s hand on some Iran-related matter.
Something isn’t adding up. If the spies’ antics were really as amateurish as they say, why wait ten years to catch them? The United States is downplaying the threat of Russian espionage, has agreed to withhold something from the press as leverage against Russia, or has simply learned to emphasize the incompetence as a way to mitigate the discomforting thought that there might be vast networks of foreign spies and saboteurs at work in the United States and there’s little our special policemen can do about it.
From Gothamist. When we had an infestation of “the brown bug,” a neighbor told me to take the 7 train to Jackson Heights, get out and go to a Chinese deli where there is an old woman who, for a few $20 bills, will let you take a few scoops of bright yellow powder that “will kill them.”
A compelling takeaway I didn’t include in my post about Richard Nash‘s speech was his emphasis on how writers crave community. This was his lead into a demand-based publishing model, and had a queasy resonance for me. I applied to graduate school for this reason — I wanted to find other writers and gather a group of people together whom I could snipe and gossip about writing with. But this was an error. I don’t think it’s what I nor anyone else needs as an “artist.”
Community is a distraction, one concealing the hierarchies of a dying industry and glomming up the cozy entry-level inefficiencies that once made it possible to make a living as a freelance writer or hack journalist. Community is comfortable, but ultimately inimical to individual achievement. In the nebulous non-being between becoming amateur and professional one is encouraged to wallow in the same ideas as one’s peers, and a close-knit community becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber of status, etc. The only people accelerated and empowered by such an environment are sociopaths — at least at the level I’m at.
The game changes once you’ve built something worth protecting, which is why [visual] artist colonies (grouped studios, shared leases etc.) and arguably the upper-tiers of the art school swindle function so well — they generate income and reduce inefficiencies — but there is no artistic benefit. And, until every individual component of an artistic community is capable of producing income, community is just another parasite drooping off the withering flanks of postpostindustrial cultural production.
Here’s a link to In the Red Room if you feel like reading along….
First gloss: story of a man escorting his elderly parents around Sri Lanka. His mother meets a strange young man in the botanical gardens, who invites them all (quite forcibly) up to his villa. They spend a few tense moments alone in a peculiar red room before leaving. On the parents’ last day in Sri Lanka the narrator finds out who the young man was, a deranged young man who shot his young bride and her lover in the room and likes to relive the scene. The narrator agonizes over whether to tell the story and decides not to. But he realizes his mother may well have known the whole story all along.
Second read: Markup I marked sections in the beginning, where the young man began speaking — and I started paying particular attention to what he was saying — then I marked the description of the red room itself, which I’d glossed over, the young man’s actions really are weird, he coaxes them out by offering to sell the house and then offers a personally inscribed book of poetry. He becomes pushier and bossier, much more realistic; the sensation of being trapped in someone’s horrid little chamber is much louder on a second read, the climax of the second scene (with Sonny) comes as he returns to the room after leaving them alone for a long time:
Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.
They hurry out soon after seeing this. They take a frightening walk back through his garden, which seems exponentially more dangerous — and I’m still snaring a little on this part, and then they are removed progressively from the scene; first by an evening, and then by the length of the trip (several weeks) which is when Sonny’s story is revealed. Finally the last scene is the narrator deciding not to tell his sensitive folks (a callback to the beginning) and then realizing his mother had already sussed out Sonny’s story (and had presumably been thinking about it ever since).
As I’m about to embark on a third read, the structure of it becomes really compelling. This is a reported event told in the first person. [ I [My parents’ trip to see me in a strange place [[the strange encounter with Sonny] parents thinking about the strange encounter with Sonny]] – Thinking about mother’s strange reaction to thinking about Sonny]. The title is “In the Red Room.” So this is really intricately structured. If it were Sonny all by himself in the third-person, or even 1st, it would just a re-telling of that weird incident, but by being about the parents reaction, and then his reaction to the parents reaction, it scoops out a sort of mis en abyme, nesting interpretations like Russian dolls.
Third read focuses on the last few pages: I’ll read it from the moment they leave Sonny’s place. Immediately the never-named narrator’s perception of his mother Hannah leaps out. I didn’t realize Sonny had followed them to the gates through the creepy jungle! They don’t mention the experience at dinner. But they parse it the next day (“we felt sufficiently removed”):
I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed, says Hannah. [The narrator says it] was like watching television without the sound. You saw everything, but you didn’t get what was going on. The kid was completely non compos mentis, you could see it a mile away, Dodd declared. Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid’s room. But why would he take us there? I don’t know; there’s something terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a little sick just to think about it. And that bed!
Stop thinking about it, declares the father. And she does (in scene). They don’t return to Colombo. The trip passes by quickly. Strange repetition of the gas metaphor, that’s a powerful one that keeps coming up, the clove tree, the smokey room. Maybe just emphasizes the claustrophobia. “I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens” — is this just a callback? Why does the Indian lawyer immediately complain about the stale air? Penultimate scene follows, the parents reflecting on their trip, and Hannah suddenly figures it out – it was like being shown around a temple — she says and then the hinge of the whole story:
No, I’m serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It was like a sort of shrine.
I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there’s no way of knowing.
She smiled. Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.
The son reflects on her statement and acknowledges that even though her stock phrase (what you don’t know won’t hurt you) seems so patently untrue, for once it was. The story end in scene (leaving the frame unclosed): I nodded my head and said: That’s right. (Giving the mother the last word, or leaving an ambiguity open, reflecting the unknowability that exists between all human beings.) Giving credence to the last interpretation, the mother and father are presumably dead from this distant vantage point.
Read Four, the first few pages: “I had underestimated their resilience, they had made a greater show of adaptability than I thought possible;” “not tempted by the distant or more inaccessible points of interest”… “(Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.)”… repetition of the parents need for comfort is repeated over and over. They are fragile, I think is the point, content to observe. Just as they are about to venture into the outer wild (i.e. the botanical gardens) is this graf:
As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.
It was the spectators… who were the focus of interest. Okay, here’s something weird, because it puts them in a tourist position and then reflects on what Sonny makes them do, which is observe them observing the room and their growing discomfort. “We’ll look inside and come out again, she promised,” Hannah says of the botanical gardens. And is that what the point is? That experience, witnessed events and the perception of them change people?
Fifth read – taking apart the mechanics : Sonny is so manipulative! Makes them sit down for a beer and then he’s been watching and talking to their driver. Sonny complains about the birds. Mornings they are singing.
We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be comfy, our host advised us.
We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have been enlarged to many times their original size.
Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead, like someone at the theater.
This is the core of the story, in the red room. Everyone is silent and the young man is stiffly staring. Then the narrator asks if Sonny sleeps on the bed. Sonny leaps up and hurries away, then spends time away. He returns long after, holding a glass of water. Hannah is still expectant! Why? Did she engineer this whole thing? And then the narrator’s perception of the mother. Okay, so the whole thing is about the mother and the son. Specifically the son’s perception of the mother’s perception. And now the parallels between Sonny and the narrators are coming apparent:
[Westin on Sonny} He’s mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house and show them the room where the great event took place. The more the merrier as far as he’s concerned.
This is such a tight, complicated story… here’s the paragraph about his perception of their perception of the incident although the unpleasant incident in question is really his memory of his parents’ perception of the event, I think:
I myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to dinner.
He decides not to. But the mother has actually figured out the story. But I still don’t get the ending: Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. So is this just about how much Hannah knew in the red room? It’s confounding! Another gloss, this sentence jumps out: “They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.”
A cicerone is a tour guide. Oh, wait. So glancing through this again I’m seeing the “adopted” sentence again. So there’s some vexing unanswered question between the narrator and his folks. I guess. Red room, womb, seems sort of a weak read… the dad is really castrated, weak and withering in the sun, unable to catch up to his wife, forced to send his son out to protect her from Sonny the Singhalese. Why was Sonny telling their driver the only thing that was going too far? And what one earth does Sonny do when he rushes out of the room. Something gross: Drinking a glass of water… His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.
Sonny was the son of a major official and stayed out of prison for his crime, and existed now as a sort of creepy, threatening presence, coaxing people into his house. And what is a bhikkhu? A Buddhist mendicant showing people around the temple, so there’s a connection back to the narrator calling himself a cicerone. I guess that’s what the story is, the tension between why he brought his parents out, what he wanted them to see, what they did see, what they took away from it versus what he wanted them to take away from the experience… so it’s about tourism on multiple strange levels, and showing people things, and the half-baked reason why and never being able to penetrate into the consciousness of your own family, let alone the motives of some bizarre foreign country.
And of course, on the left, my (real life, very red) muse:
Thanks to Models.com and V Magazine for the images