Saturday, January 27, 2007

Arthur and George

George Edalji, the oldest son of an east Indian clergyman and a Scottish mother becomes a solicitor in the early 1900s. The mild-mannered George grows up in a deeply religious home, with no more ambition than a quiet life of legal practice, relishing his modest fame as writer of the seminal Railway Law for the "Man in the train." It is life’s great irony that men such as George who are least interested in the emotional heft of social activity find themselves at the center of public curiosity.

The reclusive half-Indian is accused of mutilating farm horses in what is sensationalized as the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages,’ and sentenced to jail. Falsely accused too, as it turns out. It also appears the Edalji family had quietly endured abusive letters, victims of cruel hoaxes and harassment from persons unknown for a number of years prior to George’s incarceration. That all these meanness point to some relentless persecution of sorts, culminating in George’s grave injustice did not earn any sympathy from the authorities. Not from an indifferent judiciary, and least of all, an obviously jaundiced police force. The absolutely bizarre circumstances surrounding the case lead renowned personalities to campaign for George’s pardon and compensation, but to no avail.

Enter Arthur. That’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the failed ophthalmologist and celebrated creator of the world’s most memorable fictive detective, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur applies his considerable deductive powers to champion George’s innocence. Oddly enough, whether out of naiveté or benevolence, George did not see the colour of his skin as the cause of his woes. Piecing together circumstantial evidence Arthur challenges the police’s charges, exposes their racism, helps overturn George’s conviction, and reinstates the latter’s right to practice law again. How the two contrasting lives - one larger than life, the other obscure – converge, forms the basis of Julian Barnes’ excellent retelling of that odd acquaintance in late Victorian England.

Arthur is almost twenty years George’s senior. The former was blessed with acuity and a quick mind, while the latter suffered from astigmatism. The two drifted away from the Church of England into agnosticism, one into Spiritualism and the other into settled ambivalence. Arthur’s father lived out his years in an infirmary as a depressive and epileptic, separated from the family; it was his beloved but domineering 'Mam' who single-handedly kept the family together.

George, on the other hand, shared his father’s room into adulthood, and was invariably shaped by the parson’s proud and severe disposition. Arthur’s literary invention gave the world Sherlock Holmes while George’s misfortunes eventually led to the establishment of the court of appeals. I can almost see why the story attracted Barnes.

When I was young I used to imagine what another child my age would be doing at the exact moment on the other side of the globe, living in a world so far removed from mine, twins sharing the same time (if not space) in history. The story of Arthur and George is intriguing in the same manner. Julian Barnes cuts back and forth in his narrative, recreating the life and times of two near polar opposites brought providentially together in a story that, as they say, is stranger than fiction. The internalizing of tragic and comic impulses helps the reader to empathize with Barnes’ characters and makes the complex tale a humane and eminently believable one. And yet, it is a story that did take place.

Arthur and George was nominated for the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

No comments: