1855: Darwin's theories have yet to be exposed to an unsuspecting scientific world. In this period of interregnum, pseudo-scientist Samuel Bates's "Chain of Races" charts the entire human species, based on "the cranial features of each race. At the top of the chain "stood the European, the very best, while the bottom was reserved for the Negro". The Frenchman Belavoix holds that races are unrelated, "not siblings but strangers: the European was to the Negro as the eagle was to the raven".
Kunal Basu's accomplished new novel uses the conflict between his two fictional 19th-century theorists to bind his central narrative thread. Two children - a black boy and a white girl - are sent away to a barren island where, tended by a mute nurse, they will grow up exposed to the dangers of the natural world. Will one prove superior, pace Bates, or will they end, as Belavoix would have it, tearing each other apart? Curiously, gender doesn't enter this half-baked dung-cake of evolutionary speculation.
Also on the scene is Quartley, Bates's assistant, who will fall in love with Nora the nurse and provide the novel's romantic relief - and a humane dimension, as the reality of the injustices being perpetrated on the children begins to dawn on them.
Basu's tale is an entertaining hybrid, part intellectual thriller, part boys' own adventure, part romance at the heart of darkness. If the reader is reminded at times of Coetzee's Foe, an equally adamant presence is that of Rider Haggard. We go along with the story in the assumption that the author is out to subvert the trajectory of the imperialist novel, having already proved his credentials as a novelist of imperial India. He does an equally effective job of recreating the hothouse atmosphere of 19th-century Europe, with its prolixity of artificially-nurtured intellectual flora and fauna threatening to suffocate themselves at the root.
But Basu's skill as a historical novelist paradoxically impedes subversion. He portrays his racist scientists and their servants with such glee that the story is seen only from their partial perspectives and often seems to fall into artful pastiche.
Much of the novel is structured around swathes of cod-scientific dialogue which, though entirely convincing in their slightly modified repetitions of their own stupidities, are unrelieved by an intelligent counter-perspective. Neither Bates nor Belavoix proves an interesting character in his own right, particularly since Basu refuses to penetrate either their minds or thick skins.
Added to this is an occasional difficulty with style: the prose, which often ripples with narrative muscle, can be lush to the point of oppressiveness, particularly as it unfolds, in a very 20th-century mode, in a relentless present tense. Racism aside, the novel's concern is with the noose tightening around the children's necks, and with the haplessness of those who try to save them.
Basu opts, as in his earlier work The Miniaturist, for a finale in the genre of romantic adventure. Dumbness disappears; love triumphs (partially); one child is saved while the other is kidnapped, providing a solution to their dilemma: where to find a tolerant society that will house a multi-racial family? One question among the many the novel raises dangles over us, tantalising, unanswered: "Did we rise from barbaric roots, Mr Darwin? Or have we fallen from a civilized Eden?'"
Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by SaqiReuse content