In an age when so many politicians write their memoirs, Ralph Singh, as a character, comes to life easily from Naipaul’s imagination. The chief difference is that most political figures write to defend their policies—which can make for tiresome reading—whereas Singh writes, not to defend, but to understand himself. A desire for self-knowledge motivates him, and such a private, personal struggle, rare as it is, is poignant.
The youthful Singh is burdened by secrets. At school, he discards his first name, Ranjit, in favor of Ralph, ostensibly in order to integrate himself into his surroundings. Linguistically, by word magic, the boy seeks to bridge a chasm separating races and cultures. It is a child’s response to a profound problem. Despite his efforts, Singh experiences recurring dreams, imagining himself an Asian horseman, riding onto a snowy, forbidding, endless landscape, which suggest a longing for his ancestral home. The dramatic tension between where he is and where he ought to be remains with him throughout his life, poisoning his childhood, his marriage, and his career.
Singh’s family has endured its own problems. His father’s failure is all the more painful to him since his wife’s family is so rich, owning the Bella Bella Bottling Works. Perhaps rejection of conventional life is rooted in the shame of his own failure. Having failed again in his efforts to lead a movement against human indignity, Singh’s father is interned for six years during the war and released only to be assassinated.
Of all Singh’s friends, Ethelbert Browne is the most intriguing. Browne, named after an Anglo-Saxon king, is viewed by family and friends early in his life as a comedian. He dances and sings (“Oh, I’m a happy little nigger”), but the comic face disguises the humiliation Browne feels. Following a period in London, Browne returns to Isabella to begin his fateful quest for power.