Monday, September 17, 2012

The Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald - Melancholic Memories

The Oxford dictionary describes the term 'melancholy' as 'deep and long-lasting sadness'. This is the theme of W.G Sebald's 'The Rings of Saturn' which is about the inexorable passage of time, human greed, the changes and destruction both cause and the burden of memories. It's futile to classify this book as it is part memoir, part history, part myths and not the least about travels. Travel here doesn't refer to the normal travelogue which is about the beauty of a place, it's general history, people, cuisine, the author's experiences during the travel etc. It's about physical travels as well as mental travels by the author into the past. The mental travels are as important  with the physical travels being just a starting point. Like a small stone thrown in pond resulting in the ripple effect of concentric circles, a single thought in the author's mind leads to ruminations on a wide variety of things. For e.g. A chance viewing of a BBC documentary about a person (Casement) executed for treason in England leads to a train of thoughts about that Casement's meeting with Conrad, the oppressive lifestyle of Conrad's parents under the Czars, Conrad's travel to Congo, the rape of Congo by Belgium and finds ends with observations on Casement's life, which in a way complete the circle of thoughts. 

During his travel through the coastal regions of England, Sebald goes to places that were once thriving, but are in ruins now. These are places that practically exist only in maps now (in some cases not even in them) and in the memories of a minority. Sample this passage about a manor in Somerleyton on a summer night when

"the incomparable glasshouses, borne on cast iron fillers and braces and seemingly weightless in their  filigree grace,  shed their gleaming radiance on the dark. Countless Argand burners backed with silver-plated reflectors, the white flames consuming the poisonous gas with a low hissing sound, cast an immense  brightness that pulsated like the current of life that runs through the earth"

This was a manor that was once so painstakingly constructed so that the natural and artificial "interacted in such a way that one had the illusion of complete harmony between the natural and the manufactured.". (Much like the palace of Indraprastha built by Mayan?). What is left of all that grandeur now? Little the little the manor has disintegrated, all the servants are gone and what is now left is the carcass of a once great animal which has long since breathed its last. 

The population in these places has dropped hugely and the people remaining are those who haven't moved on to greener pastures, either due to the bond they have with that place which they do not have the strength to break or simply because they lack the will to embrace a new reality. In Lowesoft, the author stays at Ablion described at the beginning of the 20th century as the "hotel on a promenade of a superior description"  but which is now as run down as the Lowesoft itself. The receptionist there is young woman "dressed in the style of the Thirties" and who avoids eye contact with the author. Who is she and why is she dressed in the style of 30's. It's the dressing style that intrigues us. Is she a phantom from the past, haunting a theater which was once hers, a theater whose patrons and other employees have all moved on to other things and where the stage and the auditorium is always empty except for her?

Or take the Ashbury's a once very wealthy family now down in the dumps and living in their three-storey house which is probably their only property now. Actually it's even wrong to state that they are living in the three-storey house, because most parts of the house is unused. Much like in the story 'House Taken Over' by Julio Cortazar, "they were first obliged to abandon the rooms on the upper storeys, or even whole wings and retreat to more or less usable quarters on the ground floor",  the only difference being that in this case there is no supernatural phenomena that is driving the family out of their own house. The reason being mainly the unrestrained spending of the rich while never taking into account the changes rushing upon them, the result being that one day they find themselves at a crossroads as to how to proceed further. Unable to make neither a new start nor having the wherewithal to survive in the face of heavy odds, the family is stuck in a limbo, with the daughters of Mrs.Ashbury spending their time weaving. Sebald nails when he says of them
"What work they did always had about it something aimless and meaningless and seemed not so much part of a daily routine as an expression of a deeply engrained distress. The fact is that in the case of the Ashbury's they were as much to be blamed as the changing time, but it doesn't lessen the poignancy of the situation. 

These changes, places falling into ruin are not just a factor of an irreversible process of time, in a lot of cases human greed plays a great role in this. And from say the fifteen to the early twentieth century, imperialism played a great part in it (it does today too albeit with the different name of globalization). Now, when we talk of imperialism we generally associate it with the British and maybe the French. But in the 15th and 16th centuries when England was not the superpower that it was to become later, several European countries jostled with England for world dominion. Sebald tells us of one such instance when Belgium raped Congo of it's natural resources exploiting it to the hilt. In a shocking disclosure of the limits of human cruelty, he tells us about the Belgium king Leopold's explanation for the atrocities committed by the Belgium.

"he considered the work done by the blacks as a perfectly legitimate alternative to the payment of taxes, and if the white supervisory personnel at times went too far, as he did not deny, it was due to the fact that the climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia in the brains of some whites, which unfortunately it was not always possible to prevent in time, a fact which was regrettable but could hardly be changed."

Why did the king feel so, did he in the heart of hearts knew that what his country was doing was criminal and tried to justify it with some explanation or did he really feel that he and his country was doing Congo a great service by civilizing them and any harmful side-effects was only an unavoidable collateral damage. The clue to this lies in the declaration by Leopold in the inaugural meeting of the association formed for exploration. He says
"The  aim, said King Leopold, was to breakthrough the darkness in which whole peoples still dwelt, and to mount a crusade in order to bring this glorious century of progress to the point of perfection"

The words 'darkness', 'crusade' are the key here as they indicate the preconception of Leopold of the people in other continents, people who according to him are pagans/heathens living in 'darkness' so need need light (i.e) rescuing by the true followers of God. And what best justification for the rescuing of doomed souls other than the word 'crusade', a word that brings to mind images of centuries of violence over a disputed birth place. Call it Crusade, Jihad or Kar-seva, the words may change, but their connotation never does and neither does the violence implied and caused by them. So one has to conclude that Leopold genuinely believed that the blacks deserved what they were getting.  I have a beef with Sebald here, the only place of dissent I have with his thoughts and ideas in this book. About the above declaration by Leopold, Sebald comments
"In the nature of things, the lofty spirit expressed in this declaration  was later lost from sight."

Yes, at a cursory glance Leopold's proclamation seems genuine and of good intentions. But as always, ideas such as civilizing the 'other' are mainly a euphemism for either self-serving improvement or for mass destruction of a race or at the very least it's culture (which in a way is the same as destroying it's people). The Spaniards would have gone with similar lofty ideals when they reached 'South America' and we all know the result of the Spanish inquisition. And even taking the comment at face value, what gives one person the right to civilize another. Granted that Congo would not have been advanced (from a purely technological point of view) at that time, but when has knowledge equaled civilization. It's like saying that a person who is not aware of the internet today is uncivilized. Yes the net makes all our lives easier, and the person who doesn't use it loses out on a lot of things but who is to say that a person unaware of it is uncivilized? Maybe he is a lot happier than millions of people whose only aim would be to get as many 'likes' as possible in the virtual world. I was surprised at Sebald's comment, but to be fair he completely strips open the lid on the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing and in his own words "in the entire history of colonialism, most of it not yet written, there is scarcely a darker chapter than the one termed The Opening of the Congo". Maybe it's just the natural mindset of a person born in the West looking at things willing to give at least a tiny leeway to Leopold, whereas someone like me from the East is unforgiving. And finally the book is not a political statement by Sebald, just his musings on a lot of things, so maybe I am overreacting here.

It would have been very easy for the book to become a maudlin, sentimental work. But while narrating all these events  from across the globe, Sebald doesn't ever even get nostalgic, there is no longing for the days gone past, painting it be some kind of utopia that was lost forever. In the case where he describes the 'Opium Wars' waged by the British on China, there is an indictment of the Chinese royal family too, their failings and attempts at self-preservation in times of great danger for their country. The 'Dowager' chinese empress is more concerned with the maintenance of the silk worms rather than about the imminent capture of her country by the British. Makes one almost wonder if the Chinese were better off under the British rather than their own royal family, but one is also aware that it is just a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. There is a resigned acceptance of the fact that the natural progress of time and human greed will cause enormous upheavals and the most one can do is remember them in the slim hope that it will not be repeated again in the near future.

Sebald's writing has a timelessness quality about it. By it I don't mean to say that it will last for ever (who can ever say that), but that when we read it there is a suspension of time and place. As his musings move from one continent to another, from one person to another there is no discernible jump in our mindset, its like time has stopped for us too and we move seamlessly from the 20th century to the 15th and from England to Russia to Congo as if it is the most natural thing in the world. It's like 'stream of consciousnesses'  in slow motion. Through all the details of desolation, he never loses sight of the individual, the micro and the macro are always entwined when he describes a place, an event or an era.  Like when he scales the cliffs of a seashore at 'Covehithe', he describes the darkening clouds, the waves crashing against the shore, the weeds and muses
"human reasoning , diseased as it is, needs to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation" 

In the midst of such thoughts he suddenly gives us a striking visual. In the deserted shore line there is a couple
"a man stretched  full length over another body of which nothing was visible but the legs , spread and angled"

That's it, Sebald leaves the place and nothing else is told about the couple that he glimpsed upon. But it sets our mind running. What was the couple doing in such a desolate place. Well we understand what they were doing and a better query would be why were they in such a place with dusk coming upon them. I imagine Adam and Eve would have been in the same situation, all alone in the world, making love by the shores, listening to the waves crashing and the sky darkening and the creator (Sebald) seeing them and hastily averting his eyes. If this attaches a micro level view to a macro, in a reversal of it comments the following about a group of fishermen, each one alone and fishing
"They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness".
(I have so longed to be in exactly such a state, the difference being I have imagined myself sitting on a vast expanse of land with the sun beating down with just a single tree under which I am in an almost catatonic state of both body and mind.)

This book requires just one thing from the reader. You need to be in a contemplative mindset to read it. Though this is by no means a slow or drab work, it cannot be read hurriedly. It also doesn't take you by force, it is you who has to give yourself to it and let yourself be taken on as Sebald's companion on his travels. I will put it this way, if you are say in the mind to read Pynchon, but come across a Murakami work you should be able to read the Murakami with no major issue. But if you come across Alice Munro when you are in the mood to read Pynchon, you need to tune your mind slightly to it. I haven't mentioned this with respect to Sebald, as he is unique to me, I cannot fit him to anyone I have read which is my limitation. The closest I can come up with is a tenuous link to Milan Kundera's ruminative works like Immortality etc. I had a a couple of false starts with the book due to the same reasons and every time I started from the beginning. But it was all worth it and much more. Don't miss this gem of a book.


  1. Very well done review-if you have not yet read it I highly recommend King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild-it is a brilliant very detailed study of the horrible exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium.

    1. Thanks mel. I haven't read 'King Leopold's Ghost', thanks for the reco.