Now, this book is a collection of my favourite fantasies of the 20th century.
From-beyond-a-dead-dictator’s-grave plot? Check.
Quirky Wilde-like habitats and curiosities of the human species? Check.
Whitehall mandarins and politicians all a little fuzzled? Check.
A good dollop of ancient aunts, uncles, castles in the middle of forested medieval Europe and handicapped scientists? Check.
It’s a book that represents the much loved stereotypical view of Britain. Actually, it’s one of the books that have precipitated this stereotypical view of Britain. And it’s for that very reason I think we all love it. It feeds our helpless fascination for eccentric and laid-back British diplomats returning from the far-east, shrouded by Dracula-like capes and who have some reason to believe panda soft toys are very important.
There’s something mystifying about a capable diplomat who just isn’t motivated enough to get to the highest cloud of the Palace of Dreams. Maybe it’s because I might just relate to that notion, but it still is very appealing. Just not bothered enough. Ha.
Then you have that whole new-money, old-money strata of high society that layers the feel of the characters. It seems incomprehensible to a reader of the 21st century-child-of-capitalism for there to have ever been that sort of structured, maintained custom. I still hear of it in my grandmother’s tales of old Bengali families, but it remains very far off. It’s not the nature of wealth or a select gene pool that it’s all about. It’s about taste, it’s about a refined outlook, it’s about a true evolved way of thinking.
Aunt Matilda is the epitome of that. She’s not dismissive of modernity, in fact, she accepts it. She might disagree with it, but as an observer from preceding decades, she knows exactly what’s going on. Trust her to know the pullers of the strings, trust her to drop the names, trust her to do that which is reminiscent of the old world in ways which are reminiscent of the old world.
When the most secretive and dangerous situations boil down to explanations like ‘she knew your great aunt’, one can only chuckle at the author’s desperation to keep something of the old empires, now in ruins. None of it makes sense, it’s like the whole book wants to capture the crumbling edicts of the past, no longer relevant in the living, breathing present.
Countess Renata is that entity in the book which is a product of a glorified past, fashioned for the very purpose of the future. She represents all that is ‘un-British’, with the courting of Sir Stafford acting as the device of mockery. Are the old English ways being mocked or are the young and rebellious flame-bearers of the world being ridiculed for their lack of purpose and driven goals? We see the death of old giants and the salvation of the world with a certain unnatural and almost cruel weapon, as if the only way forward is to revert to an artificial correctness.
The end is rather sudden, with mysterious brides and cured scientists wandering about in the last few pages. Oh, and we finally know why Mr. Panda is important.
(Excuse my illustration of Nye, attached.)