Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Road to Mandalay, by B. M. Croker

I recorded this book for the MAB library upon special request by an elderly blind retired man.  I hope he enjoys listening to it, at least more than I enjoyed reading it.

Published in 1917 and set in the few years before the beginning of World War I, The Road to Mandalay tells the tale of young Douglas Shafto, an Englishman who takes a position in Rangoon, the capital of Burma.  Douglas possesses many virtues; if he has a flaw, the author neglects to mention it.  On board the ship, he meets Miss Sophy Leigh, who is on her way to Rangoon to tend her ailing aunt, and is similarly without a single deplorable character trait.  I might add that she lacks any character whatever, but it seems harsh, and Douglas loves her as she is.  They muddle through 2 years of dances at the Gymkhana, tennis at the club, brushes with drug-peddlers and German merchants, before returning to England aboard the same ship with plans to marry after Douglas does his part in the Great War.  

When I began, I'd been hoping for something along the lines of Kipling or Orwell, but there's a reason that B. M. Croker's name does not keep company with theirs.  I looked up some biographical information after finishing the book, and what I found explains quite a lot.  Bithia Mary Croker (1847-1920) was the daughter of an Irish clergyman, which may well explain her tendency to sermonise.  She married a Mr. Croker, member of the Scots Fusiliers, and travelled with him to India and for a short while to Burma.  

The sub-plot of the novel features the evils of the Burmese drug trade.  Sophy Leigh's aunt is not, you see, suffering from chronic neuralgia:  she is addicted to a "cocaine-morphia" mixture.  Drug abuse was (and is) a real problem in this part of the world for locals and expats alike, but this novel's treatment of it is a tedious sermon against the evils of Asia, as delivered by a self-righteous, simplistic, middle-aged, British colonial author.  Sophy's aunt is the hapless "victim" of the drug, which her Indian ayah contrives to obtain for her without the family's knowledge.  The drug comes from a predictably dim-lit and seedy shop:
At the far end of the room was an iron-bound enclosure, behind which sat a wily and inscrutable Chinaman...  
The German merchants are, of course, brutish, loud, gluttonous, and amoral.  The Burmans are all fun-loving and lazy, the English refined and polite, and the three Irish characters are simply splendid individuals. 

The title remains a mystery to me.  Although the characters do go on a jolly little junket to Mandalay before returning to England, the place does not figure at all in the story.  Everything takes place in the capital.  I suppose The Road to Rangoon just wouldn't have the same exotic, orientalist ring to it.  It also sounds a bit like "the road to ruin", but that would, in a sense, come closer to what the author intended to depict, when unwary British people travel to the Orient, let down their defenses, and lose sight of their moral rectitude.  One doubts Mrs. Croker ever fell prey to any wily and inscrutable Chinamen.

She did, though, add a new word to my vocabulary:
catspaw (also cats-paw):
a person used to serve the purposes of another; a tool.

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