I’m already dreaming of my next ‘holiday’, especially of somewhere warm, green, leafy and humid. The book ‘Elephant Moon’ by John Sweeney perfectly filled the void and transported me off to Burma in the time of the Second World War, not only providing a new landscape, but teaching me about a side of the war of which I had never heard anything. In history class, it was not difficult to get lost in the battles and tales of valour and sorrow which played out in Europe. My classes, taking place in the USA, Germany or the UK, focused on the Nazi invasions of the European states, on D-Day, on the Russian force pushing back after the Nazis underestimated the expanse and weather facing them to the east. It was only a few years ago that I was introduced to some of the narratives surrounding other battles in the Mediterranean, in Northern Africa and what we like to sum up in a far too broad brush-stroke as ‘the Middle East’. One of the main reasons that I liked this novel so much is that it breaks with this trend, and focuses on a story less told, by focusing on the disintegration of the British Empire and the invasion of Burma by the Japanese.
*NB. I know there are a variety of names for the country, but as it is called Burma by the characters, I will follow this trend*
This novel fits beautifully into the world of Post-Colonialist studies, and possibly a narrative about Britain’s (ongoing) struggle with the loss of the empire and what that means for the identity of the country. While not the representation of a voice of the people fighting for independence- the book was written by a BBC reporter and the voices throughout the book are all immigrants from England- it represents a spectrum of colonialist attitudes towards ‘their domain’ and uncovers the problems with the different narratives that were used to justify colonialism. The book also clearly shows that the characters’ actions are driven by many other emotions and sensibilities other than justice or a moral vision.
The summaries tend to focus on the fact that the novel was based on a true story, and on the portrayal of the elephants as social, human and incredibly understanding creatures. While all of these points are true and have their place in the tale, I think that the book is far more a journey of self discovery and development, which is then echoed through the elephants.
Grace is the main character in the novel, the figure that guides us through events and displays a large amount of compassion, cunning, and strength. Initially sent to Burma for her own protection by her father, the memory of the First World War in which she experienced the cruelty of a U-boat attack and the horror of colonialist snobbery, foreshadows the predicament which we know she will find herself in soon enough. As she builds relationships with the half-caste schoolchildren she is teaching, the headmistress, and an alienated government minister who has a more righteous sense of justice than many of the other colonialists, the situation in the country becomes more and more unstable. Not only are the locals looking for an opportunity to reclaim their land, but also the Japanese are said to be coming.
The schoolchildren especially Ruth, Emily, the boys and Molly remain both individuals- refugees reacting differently to the situation, scared, hungry or defiant and angry or protective, while also taking on symbolic value by representing the abandonment of the empire. Half British and half Burmese, they are shunned by both cultures, treated as inferior and unworthy of human compassion. The time the school makes to leave the country, after the the reader has already encountered the scathing attitude of the nationalist Burmese to the schoolchildren. It is quickly apparent that the colonialists running for their lives are no better, refusing them passage on the boat, leaving them to drive the distance from Rangoon to India in a dying bus.
Apart from the fiery Grace we are introduced to the magistrate with a special sense of justice- Mr. Peach, who in his despair at the abandonment of the country and the failings of the empire shows a revolting mixture of sorrow and anger before managing to pick himself up again and find a purpose in aiding in the fight against a worse evil. We also come across a soldier with a knack for nearly everything and an important secret, and a cold-hearted misogynist killer. Perhaps one of my favourite characters was the ‘Elephant man’, who finds comfort in being with the giants, and spends so much time with them, that his noises are often compared to the snorts and grunts of the elephants themselves.
While the human drama progresses as the characters make their way through the landscape, the human emotion is echoed in the frightening, compassionate, tender and vengeful elephants which they encounter. The elephants are both important but unwilling war weapons for the humans, and like the half-castes are used and abandoned by the politicians as it suits them. Apart from being an important form of transport, the novel explores the humanity that these creatures have, and explores their relationships, representing them as more pure, more loving.
I liked this book because it is a historical fiction which combines multiple perspectives of the English Empire, but also looks at the unusual war efforts in other parts of the world through changing and flawed characters. Elegantly written but easy to read, I think it offers another starting point to address ideas of entitlement (be it British, White or other), humanity, and the majesty of the large, mysterious Elephants.