Growing by Leonard Woolf. Reviewed by Craig Storti
Your Book Review Editor has a confession to make: sometimes I skim the books I end up reviewing. Never (or almost never) in the case of a new book I have not read before, but often in the case of an old favorite which I read some time ago. I was thus expecting that I would skim parts of Growing, to remind me of its major themes, and then zero in on sections I really wanted to reread.
But that never happened. I began reading the first page and was so pulled in that I reread it cover to cover. How do I explain Growing’s hold on me some 35 years after I first picked it up? But let’s start with what it’s about and why it is featured in this column. Growing is the second volume in a five-volume autobiography by Leonard Woolf, a member of the storied Bloomsbury Group, a writer, publisher, and literary editor, and the husband of Virginia Woolf, although none of that explains Growing’s claim on this space. That is explained by the particular way Woolf spent the seven years of his life covered in this volume (1904-1911): as a young British civil servant in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
As a sensitive, highly intellectual young man, Woolf was intrigued by virtually everything about Ceylon: its religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam), its geography (lush jungles, arid, treeless plains, mountains, the coast), its people (the Tamils whom he did not warm to, the Sinhalese whom he came to love, the Arabs whom he admired for their self-assurance), and his fellow imperialists (the other British who ran the country along with Woolf). Imperialism and its baggage is a recurring theme of Growing, as Woolf struggles with his disdain for all it represents, yet enjoys and readily indulges in its privileges. Woolf’s honesty—and in particular his acute self-awareness—effortlessly draws the reader in (as if drawing readers into any story can ever be truly effortless) and what leads to its many moving intercultural interludes as the young civil servant interacts with people from across the entire spectrum of Ceylonese society, from members of the very highest social class to prisoners whose brutal flogging or hanging Woolf’s job requires him to witness.
Growing is full of stories, most of them just a few paragraphs, of incidents that take up his time in a series of jobs he holds, from the lowest cadet at the bottom of the civil service ladder (in Jaffna, far northern Ceylon), to Office Assistant (in Kandy, the second city of Ceylon), to Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, his final posting. He has to investigate and adjudicate property, marriage, and buffalo disputes, arrange the visits of dignitaries, including Empress Eugenie of France, widow of Napoleon, and the Dane Baron Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) who comes to hunt but is terrified to be left alone in the jungle. One of his more interesting temporary assignments is to help supervise the Great Ceylon Pearl Fishery in the waters off of Jaffna where for two months divers from all over the region (India, the Persian Gulf) bring up oysters from the bay, and the government, after taking its share of pearls, oversees their sale to various jewellers, dealers, traders, merchants, shopkeepers, and financiers, along with the usual assortment of “dacoits and criminals.”—characters each and every one.
One of the cross-cultural highlights of Growing involves a plague of rinderpest which spreads throughout the district of Hambantota, killing thousands of cattle and water buffalo, which represent very nearly the total wealth (apart from their crops) of most families. The only way to stop the plague is to tie up or fence in the animals, thus rendering them essentially useless to their owners, and to shoot any that escape and become infected, hence spreaders. Woolf has to shoot scores of stray buffaloes, occasionally right in front of their owners, and he can feel their fury and even sympathize with it.
“The incidents of these twenty-four hours in the rinderpest ravaged district of Hambantota were no doubt trivial,” he observes, but they could be read as a moral tale about imperialism—the absurdity of a people of one civilization and mode of life trying to impose its rule upon an entirely different civilization and mode of life… My attitude to the Hambantota villagers was entirely benevolent and altruistic; I was merely trying to save from destruction some of the most valuable of their few possessions. Following me and murmuring as I walked [away], they had less understanding of my ways, my intentions, my affection for them than the [dog] walking at my heels. They were the nicest of people and I was very fond of them, but they would have thrown stones at me or shot me in the back as I walked [away] had they dared.
This particular incident, in many ways the climax of Growing, has an even more stunning component, which will fix it permanently in your memory.
But I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
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