The Book Bag is a short story from Maugham’s collection quaintly named ‘Ah King’ (It was a tribute he paid to a man-servant who was very devoted and diligent in serving Maugham during his sojourn to the East). It hasn’t enjoyed popular and critical acclaim possibly because the story theme might not hold appeal to many.
But it is a delectable piece of narrative – the aimless opening and wandering before the tale nudges on towards its purpose is such a delight and so nice a departure from the ‘matter-of-fact’ modern tales. It is languid and casts a spell on you just like the days of the yore and the days of Arabian Nights.
So we start with Maugham doing a bit of aimless wandering in the Eastern outposts of the British Empire popularly known as the ‘Federated Malay States’ (FMS). He gets invited to one such small town and spends a few days with Mark Featherstone, an Englishman who happens to be the Acting Resident at a place called Tenggarah. Ostensibly the purpose of the visit is to attend a water festival. However what unravels is the unique tale of a devoted brother-sister duo named, ‘Tim and Olive’.
Nothing Maugham pens is without purpose – a mindless conversation that Mark and Maugham share over their addiction for books deftly touches the story about Byron and Augusta Leigh. It is a lead overture for what is to follow but the unsuspecting reader doesn’t quite know it yet and cannot quite connect the dots.
Instead the tale moves on as Maugham discusses a chance bridge partner, Tim, they met at the club. Mark explains that he has known him for long. In fact he was a prosperous Rubber estate owner in Sibuku and lived with his sister Olive. The pair were very devoted to each other and tended to stay apart from the society at large. It so happens that they take a fancy for Mark and accept him in their home. Mark has fallen in love with Olive but she is a rather enigmatic person.
Fortune seem to favour him when Tim goes to England on a long trip to complete some business related work. Olive and Mark spend a lot of time together and things seem to be headed in the right direction. Suddenly a surprising news is received that Tim has got married and is headed back home with his bride. Mark is delighted as he feels this is very much to his advantage and will force Olive to finally accept him and get married. He finds it strange that the news has left Olive distraught, she is on the verge of denial and not willing to accept the change.
The tale moves to a sharp climax. The couple arrives and reaches home. Mark is forced to be away as he has some work that he needs to attend. He returns to learn the shocking news that Olive has committed suicide by shooting herself. The implications are quite clear – Tim’s reaction followed by the hurried exit of his bride nail it all down in ‘black-n-white’. You have to appreciate Maugham’s technique and grip of the narrative that he manages to pull off the act without making it look vulgar and voyeuristic.
The tale returns to the present when time and places have moved on. And yet Mark and Tim are again thrown together. Obviously neither of them wants to dwell on the past and they try to maintain a civil friendship as demanded by decorum. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives but with such a rich vein of drama and trauma in their past.