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The Village in the Jungle Paperback – November 12, 2009
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A Woolf-like magistrate appears in the novel, booking a self-confessed murderer from the jungle. The magistrate is shown in a flattering light: he's intelligent and perceptive, speaking fluent Sinhalese. As the exhausted man sleeps in front of him, the magistrate asks his assistant's opinion of the case. His assistant replies that the jungle people are ignorant savages. Then the Woolf character says: "I rather doubt it. You don't help the psychologist much. This man now: I expect he's a quiet sort of man. All he wanted was to be left alone, poor devil." Psychologist! Woolf wrote this in 1912, the year he resigned from colonial service to marry Virginia Stephen, who encouraged him to write this book. Woolf and the other Apostles at Cambridge were early converts to Freud. The Hogarth Press published the first English translations of Freud's works.
I believe this book is the earliest literary work to break from the Victorian glorification of imperialism, trumpeted so successfully by Rudyard Kipling. Far from being 'the white man's burden,' colonialism is here just another burden on natives already struggling with plenty of troubles of their own. Woolf's jungle is Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' come to life, for the people as well as for the animals. The people are never far from starvation. "For the rule of the jungle is first fear... and behind the fear is always the hunger and the thirst, and behind the hunger and the thirst fear again." But Woolf incorporates another level as well, beyond the objective Darwinian reality. He shows the natives' feelings about the jungle, their behavioral adjustments: their psychology! It's quite remarkable. And hugely successful.
This book must have had a big impact on Joyce Cary, who served as District Officer in Nigeria (1914-1920), and also came to see colonialism from the native's perspective. It's especially evident in "The African Witch" (1936). In "An American Visitor" (1933) the colonial administrator is determined not to allow Christian missionaries into the country, as they would only debase and destroy the philosophical underpinnings so crucial to maintaining the coherence of society. (It is extremely unfortunate that the British, trying to maintain their hold on Ceylon, deliberately set the Tamils and the Sinhalese against each other. The upshot was the brutal, incredibly destructive, civil war that lasted 26 years.)
Love, hatred, greed, plotting, religion, superstition all come into this tale; and over it all the British administration, whose taxes and permits make life that bit harder for the peasants.
Having recently visited this area of Sri Lanka, I really felt Woolf's writing brought the area to life ;
'The jungle surged forward over and blotted out the village up to the very walls of her hut...Its breath was hot and heavy...it closed with its shrubs and bushes and trees, with the impenetrable disorder of its thorns and its creepers, over the rice-fields and the tanks.'
In a short story, 'Pearls and Swine' which appears in my (Eland) edition, Woolf expresses some of his opinions on the shortcomings of colonial rule.
It is interesting that this novel has never achieved classic status, probably because there are no western heroes, and nothing really redemptive. But parts of it are in the same league as A Passage to India.