Two years ago in Rangoon, I met a toothpick-thin, boisterous young Burmese man called Somerset. He had conferred this nickname on himself at age sixteen, after renting a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham from one of the bookstalls on Pansodan Road. By memorizing sentences from the collection, Somerset taught himself a somewhat formal and archaic English. Then he moved on to Charles Dickens. His identification with the works of these long-dead British writers was total. “All of those characters are me,” Somerset explained. “Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.”
Somerset helped make sense of an impression that had been hovering in my mind, just beyond articulation, for many years during travels through countries in Africa and Asia that are a century or two behind the Western world. Talking with an itinerant used-clothing peddler in eastern Uganda, or a Nigerian girl newly arrived in Lagos who had to prostitute herself to work off a debt, or an educated Iraqi who made his living selling cigarettes and secondhand books, I would experience a sense of déjà vu that took me entirely out of my own life and time. It felt as if I were meeting a character from one of the great novels of the late-nineteenth century—Our Mutual Friend, Sister Carrie, or something by George Gissing or Thomas Hardy. Reading Jude the Obscure on a trip through Kenya, I began to see its hero’s frustrated aspirations in every young person with a worthless high-school diploma, a menial job, and a tattered paperback copy of a self-improvement guide. Jude is far more alive today in Mombasa than in Wessex.
The concerns of that literature—the individual caught in an encompassing social web, the sensitive young mind trapped inside an indifferent world, the beguiling journey from countryside to metropolis, the dismal inventiveness with which people survive, the permanent gap between imagination and opportunity, the big families whose problems are lived out in the street, the tragic pregnancies, the ubiquity of corruption, the earnest efforts at self-education, the preciousness of books, the squalid factories and debtor’s prisons, the valuable garbage, the complex rules of patronage and extortion, the sudden turns of fortune, the sidewalk con men and legless beggars, the slum as theater of the grotesque: long after these things dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.