June 21, 2008

Kunal Basu's ' Racists' - Questioning the Validity of Scientific Experimentation?

Kunal Basu's 'Racists' unfolds in the early 19th century on a remote island in Africa. This island becomes the setting for an unusual experiment carried out by two European scientists of the pre-Darwin era, each trying to prove the validity of his hypothesis about racial superiority. The experiment is unusual in that it is carried out on two human 'samples', a white girl and a black boy, over an extended period of time, twelve years, without societal intervention except for the presence of Norah, the mute nurse. The two 'samples' are moved to this island as new born infants in the care of Norah whose job is simply to feed them and keep them alive; she is not to discipline them, teach them, or to reward them in any way.

Basu, a Professor of Management Studies at Said School of Business, Oxford, published this novel in 2006. A man given to crunching numbers and studying markets has created for himself a literary pallet out of which he has painted many a canvases with varying backdrops: China of the early 19th century in 'The Opium Clerk', India in the 16th century in 'The Miniaturist' during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and then a pre-Darwin Europe in 'Racists'. His choice of settings is remarkable since each one of them catapulted the world into a significantly different era of socio-scientific awareness.

This novel had been on my reading list on the recommendations of Eshuneutics, and perchance I happened to have read this novel just as I finished rereading the Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Racial differences and their possible origins were on the minds of most thinking people in the early 1900s, and the likes of H.G. Wells made these subjects their literary fodder to create stories and novels that would forever document the pre-Darwin obsession with racial asymmetry. Basu followed suit but in the 21 st century, and in 'Racists' he has tried to capture the development/trend of scientific thought as it pertained to racial segregation then. Through the novel he forces his readers to revisit the various steps in evolutionary Biology that lead to Darwin's Origin of Species. Absurd and antiquated as some of the dialectic in the novel may sound to the modern reader, it indeed articulates the infancy of a scientific renaissance; 'craniology' as presented in the novel was perhaps a stepping stone/ a precursor to the establishment of modern evolutionary theories introduced by Darwin.

I enjoyed the novel as it was quite the page turner, but somehow I had to suspend my disbelief at numerous points simply because I wanted to see what Mr. Basu was leading up to. It was the overall idea of the novel that proved to be more appealing than its writing style, its characters, or even the unfolding of the plot itself. Having said that, it is still a novel worth reading if you are looking for something to stimulate the mind. It's almost as if Basu presents this complex situation amid a setting that is vibrant and explosive, but then he leaves it to the reader to make of it what he may because the conclusion Basu provides is rather unsatisfying and this leads the reader to find alternate explanations/ solutions/ conclusions to the story.


How do we know said...

i'll read this novel - soon.

Eshuneutics said...

A fine review. I am glad that you read the novel. I have to concur with all you say. The book cover of yours is better than my version...interetsing how different markets are approached with differing covers. Curious that you read Wells before Basu...I wondered if, in someway, that Basu was creating a reactive fiction, as William Golding was inclined to do...so his own work on human development, "The Inheritors" reacts against Wells. A great review...as always.

LiteraryMinded said...

I agree with you in that it was much more the overall idea of the novel that appealed.

Thank you for visiting my blog too. I will reply to your comment on their.

Great review, thanks.


White Rose said...

Wow, all three of the books you mentioned sound fascinating, India and China have always been such an obsession with me. I have been drawn in by the music and reading the Pearl S. Buck books as a teenager, left me with a powerful hunger to find out all I could about China.

And 'Racists' sounds incredibly interesting.

Just wanted to say you have a wonderful blog! I always get excited about new reading material and you have pushed me in directions I may not have gone on my own. :D

kannan udayarajan said...

hmmm..interesting subject to write a novel on...this reminded me of an old argument which was used by white supremacists to claim superiority - they found out that the skulls of people of African American descent was strikingly similar to that of the monkey..Well sciece has proved otherwise..

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Sorry, but I really don't know how to call you. Unless you give some advice, let it be "Id".

I would like to read this book "Racists".

Nowadays, the word "racist" is a dangerous one and this the more so as nobody seems willing to give a definition.

Some years ago, I was looking for a French secretary. Being German, though fluent in French, I could make make mistakes, foreigners always do. She should correct this.

Amongst those who proposed there was a woman from Morocco, she had a doctorate in history. Well, I told her that I could not hire her because her first languaste was Arabic and not French. She became very furious and explained to me that I a "a racist male pig".

So much about that though a bit off the subject.


Id it is said...

In fact it was the title of Basu's novel that was partly responsible for me reading it over a couple of other novels i had in line to read this summer! The word 'racist' is quite the lure in the literary world isn't it?

That anecdote about the Moroccan interviewee is rather interesting and intriguing too! I have a colleague at work who is a first generation Moroccan immigrant who teaches English but claims French to be her first language and Arabic her second; needless to say English which she currently 'teaches' ranks a mere third in her language acquisition resume.

Thanks for sharing that anecdote; I am not aware how many languages you speak; though I am pretty sure you speak at least two; being bi(multi)lingual, I am surprised you made that call about not hiring the Moroccan PhD.

Georg said...

Hallo Id,

As you say, "racist" is a catch work these days and frequently used to discriminate against people whose ideas are not welcome.

As to me, I am fluent in English and in French. But as I said, it is only your mother tongue you are able to "feel" a hundred percent.

For instance, when dictating my letters, my secretary told me from time to time "this is correct but said in a clumsy way". And I answered: "you are surely right, translate this clumsy stuff into elegant or at least neutral French"".

This Moroccan you are mentioning must have Arabic as her first language unless her mother was French. Her name would testify to this.


Id it is said...

"..., it is only your mother tongue you are able to "feel" a hundred percent." I'm afraid I couldn't agree with you on that one. The language that you 'feel' a hundred percent is the language that you've been 'immersed' in for a considerable period of time and one that is vital for your physical and social survival. Like you I too speak multiple languages; English happens to be my third language if we are to call my mother tongue (one that I rarely use, perhaps 5% during the course of a day) my first language. Do I 'feel' a hundred percent in it? Definitely not; in fact I often find myself scrambling for words and phrases and I usually switch to another language in order to better communicate.

Perhaps, this may be unique, and have to do with the repeated displacement/migration that has occurred in my life. But don't you think that in the current economic context that migratory nature of existence may soon become a trend and the term 'mother tongue' may not carry the same connotation as it did in the past?

Pardon me for this long comment, but your comment made for some great grey cell stimulation, hehe

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

That seems to be an interesting subject.

My remark about only feeling 100 percent at home in one's mother tongue was probably unsufficiently explained. What I wanted to say was purely technical and naturally, I can only speak for myself. I meant that only in German language I can say "this phrase is correct". In English and in French I can only hope for the best and rely on my experience of many years.

There are some similarities between us. I am now in France since 83 and married to a Frenchwoman from Paris. Days and days can pass without myself uttering a single word in German. But these are the roots and they are deep.

The Romans 2000 years ago had that saying "ubi bene ibi patria (my home country is where I am) but in reality wherever they went, they brought Rome and Roman ways with them. That does not mean they were so stupid as to wear sandals and togas in cold places like Germany or England. Ha, ha, ha!

Mother tongue: I very much like poetry but experience has taught me that only in German I truly appreciate and love it. Reading a French or English poem makes no difficulties; I understand everything that is said and even what is not said but hidden between the lines. But real pleasure and excitement comes only when I get the stuff in German.

But all this applies only to me. You are coming from a different country and having had different experiences and challenges, you must have a different outlook on the matter.


Id it is said...

You are right on that we can only speak for ourselves as each one of us carries a unique language acquisition history so the power your mother tongue wields on you can be significantly more than what mine has on me, and for reasons well justified.

Sometimes I wonder whether there is a sense of rootlessness that comes with being multilingual. I speak five languages, three of which I am fluent in, and sometimes this multilingualism blurs my sense of identity in a multicultural setting. I wonder if that is true with others who speak more than two languages...

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Sorry for not answering earlier. Had been away a few days for a family visit. My father in law had a cancer operation.

Rootlessness because of being able to speak some different languages? For me, the contrary seems to be the case.

I imagine however it all depends where you come from and what has happened to you.

If you are obliged to run away from your home country at top speed and then you have to find a place without being really welcome there, things might be totally different.