A Passage To India by E. M. Forster

First read: 2/2000
Reviewed on: 2/24/2000
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

What is Literature, as opposed to literature?  Well, how about a book where no actual characters appear until page six?  Or nothing really dramatic happens until page 170   (A full 85/181 way through the book)?  I don't want to complain too strongly, because I liked this book, but after every chapter, I could hear Alistar Cooke thanking me for joining him for another exciting episode of Masterpiece Theater. 

Part of my problem was the proper names.  Once Mr. Forster (whose name reminds me of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 villain) decides to give us some people to look at, he throws us Hamidullah, Aziz, Mahmoud Ali (you know who THAT made me think of), Lesley, Blakiston, Fielding, Turton, Burton (and their wives, Mrs. Turton and Mrs. Burton), and Hugh Bannister (son of the Reverend Bannister and his wife, Mrs. Bannister).  This is in two pages.  I know that sprawling Epics have to have lots of characters, and if I had been sitting in my easy chair by the fire, with my loyal cat at my side and pipe in my mouth, I could have handled all the names.  But I don't have an easy chair or fireplace, and neither my cat nor I smoke a pipe.  And I wasn't really sitting as much as walking to work while reading the beginning, so I wasn't really in the mood to keep track of a bunch of names.

The second part of my problem was the cliche factor.  Oh.  A book about whether Englishmen and Indians could become friends, or if the environment of colonial India would make that impossible.  Maybe this book wouldn't really be about that.   Maybe it would be about a fresh, different aspect of colonial India.  Here we are at page seven:

"[some characters with names] were discussing as to whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman."

I guess not. 

So the first 85/181 of the book was what you would expect, with two female ingenues who wanted to befriend Indians, and the stuffy stereotypical governor in charge of keeping order, and the whole Two Indias In One Location thing.  I liked the writing, and when I drove a friend to the Emergency Room (not Laurel, someone you don't know) it passed the time, etc. etc.

And then we hit page 170, which has to be the best set-up "awkward moment" I have ever read.  In my opinion, the entire first half of the book was written specifically to lull you into a nice relaxed feeling, so when Dr. Aziz gets his big "Uh - oh..." you get the full impact.  I don't want to spoil it for you (Dammit, why am I getting more and more careful about spoilers as I go through this project?)  And after the Uh Oh, you realize that you have found yourself getting to know all the characters (even though you still picture Mahmoud Ali as the former Cassius Clay), and the entire book becomes riveting, and it doesn't matter that you have exams to grade, because you suddenly can't put this book down.  And by the point that the main conflict has resolved, you are hooked anyway, and you go quickly through the rest of it like you are Spicy Curry, and the book is you.

I suppose I should put at least one spoiler in here, just so that I don't become inhibited as I write down my impressions of the rest of the Top 100 Novels of All Time.   Let me spoil the end for you:  "Is it possible for an Englishman and an Indian to be friends?"  The answer is: "Maybe."  Satisfying, eh?   Now you don't have to read the book to find out.

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