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Monday
Mar102008

The Return of Imray

Thinking of this Englishman as a writer of detective stories sounds strange, although the times and places in which he lived afforded his skills ample opportunity to develop.  What Kipling could not find in his environs in Lahore or Bombay he imported from the birthland of his forefathers, and his whimsy and sense of the nugatory cannot be better expressed than in a quote from this story:
For these reasons, and because he was hampering, in a microscopical degree, the administration of the Indian Empire, that Empire paused for one microscopical moment to make inquiry into the fate of Imray. 
This is undoubtedly one of the finest sentences of English literature: the whole tale, then, is to be a moment in the life of someone who is probably dead and surely unimportant, except to the narrator, who has other ends in mind.  Art at the microscopical degree is still art, and an inquiry into the miniature particles of its construct as commendable as the painting of a chapel ceiling.  And Imray is suddenly as significant as any other fictional character that has ever lived.

200px-Rudyard_Kipling.jpgOur narrator has few contacts in the world he describes.  There is only another Anglo–Indian, Strickland, a friend and policeman who rents the bungalow formerly inhabited by the Indian Imray, and Strickland’s dog, Tietjens.  What is particular about Tietjens, a bouncy and frisky beast with more personality than just about anyone else in this story, is that she is immediately identified as both a “slut” (a connotation that in 1891 was not quite like today’s use of the word) and a “familiar spirit.”  Now I cannot say I am an expert in the religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent, but this stroke suggests a sympathy with the local tradition that is often missing in “colonial” narratives, for lack of a better term.  Kipling himself was often charged with being too negative about the civilizations his country subjugated and the glee with which he spread his literature suggested a certain pride in the accomplishments of imperialism.  That view, in retrospect, comes off as too politically charged to be of any consequence: Kipling wrote about what he saw and heard, and what he saw and heard was at times appalling and inspiring for entirely different reasons.  True enough, we watch souls through their cages and imagine what they are really like within, and sometimes our guesses are spot–on.  Other times, we gaze smugly at those around us and think that we can read a soul in the vicissitudes of its face.  Perhaps we even chat with these spirits to confirm our suspicions.  But then, one day, these spirits vanish into the crowds we never seem to have noticed and, upon taking inventory of our recollections, we find that nothing will resummon them because all along they were figments or pastiches of our own projections.  We know nothing about them except that at one time they existed, although even that is assailable.  We know nothing about them and would never be able to find them again unless they entered our world on our terms, and so we forget them and find others, more beautiful or more interesting.  And our narrator realizes he knows absolutely about Imray.

It is perhaps understood that Imray is dead or returned in some other form or both.  A shadow accompanies the story line from an appropriate distance, with a reserve that seems unlikely given the beliefs the author ascribes to the natives:
The rooms of the house were dark behind me ... my own servant came to me in the twilight, the muslin of his clothes clinging tight to his drenched body, and told me that a gentleman had called and wished to see some one.  Very much against my will, but only because of the darkness of the rooms, I went into the naked drawing–room, telling my man to bring the lights.  There might or might not have been a caller waiting — it seemed to me that I saw a figure by one of the windows — but when the lights came there was nothing save the spikes of the rain without, and the smell of the drinking earth in my nostrils.
Outside, as “storm after storm came up,” Tietjens is seen howling at something or someone.  And someone tries to call out to the narrator “by name, but his voice was no more than a husky whisper.”  After that long and magnificent description, two snakes slither their way into the story as if dispatched to destroy the interlopers in Imray’s house.  Then we meet one last character who reveals exactly why Imray disappeared, an explanation that you could not possibly expect in a purely “Western” story devoted, as it must be, to dispassionate reason.  And Imray’s strange fate, like the weblike tale in which he is entrapped, is both logical and ridiculous.   

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