Charlot by Ian Masters

Charlot ís a very accomplished piece of writing, and it is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I read it in two sittings, taken up by the narrative drive, and the lucid, yet chromatic quality of the writing. Masters has the plotting completely under control, even though it has many strands, and no doubt his long experience in writing screenplays accounts for the dramatic impetus of this complex novel.

Charlie Chaplain is touring Indo-China with his (as yet unannounced) wife, movie star, Paulette Goddard, after the release of his most recent film, Modern Times. His engagement with an alien culture fires his creativity, and he begins planning a new venture. During the visit he has witnessed gratuitous cruelty towards the native Cambodian people – and especially the workers in the rubber plantations – at the hands of their French masters. He has fallen in with a vivacious theatrical troupe whose shows involve thinly-veiled satire, directed at the governing élite of the Protectorate, and he befriends their leader, Phirath, and the boy, Saloth Sar. This is a high risk business, and the troupe, along with Chaplin himself, are subject to the constant surveillance of the Sûreté, under the malign direction of the impeccably correct, and ubiquitous, Captain Le Favre.

Charlot is impressed by Phirath’s courage, and, in return, the actor and the boy appear to idolise him, especially in his role as the little good-hearted tramp in the silent movies. Perhaps they have an ulterior motive in wanting to engage him in their growing resistance to their colonial oppressors. In any event, as Charlie maps out a blueprint for a new movie, he wonders whether the tramp will need to speak, just as the actors are looking for their own voice.

The relationship between Charlie and Paulette is nuanced. That they are very much in love is beyond doubt. The sex is good. Usually, they complement each other, both in private and in public, and they are artistically compatible (at least up to now). But the relationship is not equal, for Paulette is Charlie’s star; she is under contract to him, and a strain begins to appear in their relationship when Hollywood beckons with other possibilities for Paulette. Is their love enough to sustain a marriage? 

The story moves with growing inexorability to a visit to the temple complex at Angkor Wat. I was reminded of the visit to the Malabar Caves in A Passage to India. Something transformative happens in both and, although the nature and outcome of the events are quite different, a sense of the numinous hovers over both.

The inter-tissued themes of the novel are not forced. They include the politics of colonialism; the ethics of resistance; romance, real and imaginary; the nature and processes of creativity, and the tension between silence and speech. This is a political novel, but there are no shrill harangues and no tub-thumping. The author’s point of view is subtly inflected and we never feel browbeaten. A profound humanity pervades.

Different readers will carry away different memories of the story. For me, what will powerfully persist are images as if seen through a stereoscope: a gadget where a dual-picture photographic slide is fed into a viewer and what you see is three dimensional. 

The images include: a dragon fruit, an opium pipe, Charlot’s Derby hat, a handful of incense sticks, shaken to extinguish them (never blown out), tropical whites and jungle helmets, drunk Paulette’s champagne glass held at an angle and about to spill, a painted backdrop of a palace, thick make-up and beads in a headress, Le Favre’s glossy black shoes, latex leaking from the rubber trees, sampans and pagodas. 

And there are the sounds and smells: the vapid chatter of the privileged colonial masters on their manicured lawns; a foxtrot played by a quartet in an expensive hotel, and the exotic drums and bells and wailing strings of the theatre troupe’s orchestra; the noise of animals in the market. Above all, there is the unrelenting and debilitating humidity (sweat running down Charlot’s forearm as he tries to write a letter); there is the whine of inescapable mosquitoes. There is the heady, cloying scent from those joss-sticks, shaken to extinguish them, because it is a heresy to blow them out.

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