Monday, 28 March 2011

Robin Jenkins: Dust on the Paw (1961)

A truly superb but apparently forgotten novel, Dust on the Paw is set in Afghanistan in the fifties, when the seeds of that troubled country's current problems were already apparent.

Set in the consular community in Kabul, with most of the characters being staff of the British Embassy, the story describes the complications which occur when a marriage between an English civil servant and an Afghani science teacher is taken up by an important member of the Afghani royal family to promote as part of the cultural progress made by the country. The problems arise from the extremes of the cultural differences between the two countries - Afghanistan was a conservative Moslem nation even then - and through the racist attitudes, conscious or not, of the British.

This may not sound like an ideal environment for humour. Jenkins uses sly, cynical comments on the pomposity of the British consular staff and the clash between two very different cultures - particularly in their treatment of women - to amuse. The humour does not use race as its basis. (It is perhaps important to say this because of the age of Dust on the Paw). Instead, the butt of the humour is the racism of the characters, like a subtler version of the ridicule of Rigsby in seventies sitcom Rising Damp. This mostly works extremely well, though for me it dips in the first of the three big set pieces of the novel (two parties, one informal and one formal, and a military parade), as the focus is on one Englishman's failure to come to terms with the racism which he has just become aware of within himself, and the unpleasant behaviour it provokes in him. In fact, he is so unprovokedly unpleasant that this is easily the least enjoyable part of the novel.

The background of Afghanistan in the fifties is very atmospheric, and (according to the preface to this edition) accurate. Clearly, it was a country which Jenkins loved, even if he did not like everything about it. He is particularly unhappy about the shaddry - his now old-fashioned Anglicisation of chadari, the enveloping garment now better known in the West as a birqa. Even fifty years ago, progressives wished to abolish the garment, and the women who wore them were known as "shuttlecocks" because of their appearance. The sexism of Afghan life is portrayed as the counterpart to the racism of the British.

The title is a quotation from a medieval Persian poet, who described the poor as the dust on the paw of the rich and powerful; Afghan politics is portrayed by Jenkins as rife with corruption, even without the meddling of the external powers which was going on since the clandestine machinations of the British and Russians imperial powers in the nineteenth century and which continues today with the war to defeat militant Islamic terrorism in the country.

The impression which Dust on the Paw makes is something between Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus stories and the Balkan Trilogy of Olivia Manning. The consular background has got something to do with this, but I think that Jenkins' novel will appeal to admirers of either, within certain limits - the themes are a lot more serious than in the Lawrence Durrell.

This is a forgotten masterpiece by a writer I didn't know before the title caught my eye. My rating: 10/10.

Edition: Polygon, 2006
Review number: 1417

1 comment:

Dingwall said...

Lived in Afghanistan as a child in the early 60s and this book was always on my parents bookshelf. I read it in my late teens and it is wonderfully written, very accurate and a tremendously good read. Highly recommended