“The Man Who Collected Women” by Nigel Barley

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A novel based on anthropologist and author Nigel Barley’s writing career might well be called The Man Who Collected Colorful European Characters from the History of Southeast Asia. Thomas Stamford Raffles; the “White Rajah” James Brooke; bohemian Bali-based artist Walter Spies; German sea captain Julius Lauterbach; and incorrigible mythomaniac Muriel “K’tut Tantri” Walker: Barley has written books—some fiction, some nonfiction—about all of them. These are all somewhat controversial figures, and that, surely, is the attraction.

But for his latest novel, Barley has turned to perhaps his most controversial historical subject yet: the English merchant-adventurer Alexander Hare.

What gives Hare his enduring notoriety 200 years later is his possession of a large, multi-ethnic harem of slave women.

The Man who Collected Women, Nigel Barley (Monsoon, November 2020)
The Man who Collected Women, Nigel Barley (Monsoon, November 2020)

Hare was the son of a watchmaker, born in London in 1775. But he spent most of his career in Southeast Asia, running a trading house in Malacca, hanging around the fringes of Raffles’s 1811-16 administration in Java, creating the first permanent settlement on the Cocos-Keeling Islands, and eventually dying in Bengkulu in 1834. What gives Hare his enduring notoriety 200 years later is his possession of a large, multi-ethnic harem of slave women.

Even in the early 19th century, Hare’s domestic affairs were controversial: a forced departure from South Africa and a conflict with rival Cocos-Keeling settler John Clunies-Ross were at least in part due to Hare’s “lifestyle”. More significantly, his establishment of a large personal fiefdom at Banjarmasin in Indonesian Borneo during the 1811-1816 British interregnum has been used as “a convenient stick with which to beat the Raffles administration”, as Barley puts it in his introduction. Raffles supplied Hare’s settlement with forced labor, and, reportedly, with women procured “by coercive and unjustifiable means”, as one critical British official put it at the time.

But despite all this scandalous detail, Hare as a personality remains almost entirely obscured, revealed only in scant and contradictory archival fragments. This creates a problem for a historical novelist. It would be easy enough to make a monstrous, Kurtz-like figure of Alexander Hare. But Barley is clearly eager to produce, if not a sympathetic portrait, then at least one that questions the straightforward contemporary view of a “sexist, racist, colonialist rapist”. To do this he has come up with the cunning device that makes The Man Who Collected Women such an engaging and at times affecting read: a fictional would-be biographer by the name of Arthur Grimsby.

Barley’s prose is, as ever, a delight, often combining arcane vocabulary with airy elegance.

Arthur is a middle-aged museum curator in 1960s Singapore. He has endured internment during World War II, marriage to the serially unfaithful Eileen, recent widowerhood in murky circumstances, and is now facing the dissolution of the British Empire and the termination of his own mediocre career. He has also made a long project of researching the life of Alexander Hare.

The novel tacks back and forth between the twin narratives—of Hare and Arthur. Barley knows the history of 19th-century Southeast Asia very well, and the Hare scenes are atmospheric, with lots of convincing period detail and amusing cameos from well-known historical figures. A brief, brandy-guzzling appearance by Raffles’s first wife, Olivia, is particularly memorable. But Arthur often intrudes at the edges of these scenes: all this is his attempt to connect with his subject, to imagine what Hare might have seen and done. It’s a clever technique that reveals the challenges of fictionalizing a real historical figure about whom there is little concrete information. It also helps explain why Alexander Hare doesn’t ever really emerge as a character in the round. But no matter: The Man Who Collected Women is really Arthur’s story.

The heart of the book is a tragi-comic tale of a man befuddled by just about everything—from personal relationships to the very moment of history in which he finds himself. As Arthur’s historical research progresses, and as he reflects on the disappointments of his marriage, he is tempted to channel his own inner Alexander Hare. But a tentative romantic pursuit of his secretary ends in a terrifying role-reversal followed by disaster. And a furtive visit to a Bugis Street brothel terminates with a very well-worn punchline—albeit one that still gets the intended belly-laugh, thanks to Barley’s immaculate comic timing.

 

Barley’s prose is, as ever, a delight, often combining arcane vocabulary with airy elegance. The courtly version of the Malay language is “all honorific avoidance of the bruising active mood and surrounded by charming floskel and curlicue”. And there are sporadic darts of outrageous humor in the descriptions: Arthur, pondering the attractions of smoking a pipe, yearns “to cradle the bowl like a warm scrotum.”

Of course, writing today about such a historical figure as Alexander Hare—and indeed about a fictional European male in late-colonial Asia such as Arthur Grimsby—can be a fraught undertaking. Barley is clearly aware of this, and diffuses much of the potential tension with a certain satirical playfulness. Hare is eventually undone by the agency of Anna and Maria, recent South African additions to his harem, while Arthur is bested by just about everyone. And the book’s unexpected finale is a sharp lesson never to make unthinking assumptions about apparently passive background figures.

The Man Who Collected Women is a clever and highly entertaining novel, which conjures up a wholly fictional protagonist with just the right balance of sympathy and ridicule, and which handles a problematic real-life historical figure deftly.

At one point, pondering Alexander Hare’s general obscurity as compared to Raffles’s enduring renown, Arthur suggests that “You don’t build statues to cautionary tales.” But viewed from the postcolonial 21st century, perhaps all of them—the demonized Hare, buried somewhere in the Sumatran jungle; Raffles, still just about on his pedestal on the Singapore waterfront; and fictional Arthur, hopelessly adrift in the fast-changing 1960s—should properly be viewed as cautionary tales.


Tim Hannigan is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; and A Brief History of Indonesia.