Maugham’s ‘The Back of Beyond’

The title is quite incongruous for a change – it is supposed to indicated a lonely forsaken place. Federated Malay States (FMS) in the days before World War II was not quite that remote – it was part and parcel of the British Empire and enough adventures to be noted for the expatriates who forayed into the unknown land to earn their livelihood.

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Rubber estates were a popular locale for stories and Maugham continues to explore the world intelligently in this short story that appeared in the collection ‘Ah King’. ‘One should not cut off your nose to spite your face’, is the sage advise the Resident offers to Tom Saffary, a planter, when he consults him about his marital woes.

George Moon, Resident in charge of Timbang Belud in the Federated Malay States is but Somerset Maugham himself donning a mask. The Resident is on the verge of retirement and he is moving away from a place where he spent his lifetime. He was known to strict but fair – he brought no sunshine to the place and was keenly aware of his Official position. But he was hard-working and toiled to improve the lives of the people in his area. He has a deep insight into human behaviour and is quite forgiving of many vices so long as the overall picture is not marred.

Tom Saffary, a middle-aged planter who is friendly bloke, inadvertently seeks Moon’s advise on his marital woes. The circumstances play a crucial role in the affair and Moon evaluates the whole situation in a calm and dispassionate manner. His advise flies in the face of conventional wisdom but is very practical and useful in solving the issue at hand.

Maugham mouths his philosophy through Moon and I cannot but resist to quote couple of gems from the same.

‘One mustn’t expect gratitude. It’s a thing that no one has a right to. After all, you do good because it gives you pleasure. It’s the purest form of happiness there is. To expect thanks for it is really asking too much. If you get it, well, it’s like a bonus on shares on which you’ve already received a dividend; it’s grand, but you mustn’t look upon it as you due.’

‘If to look truth in the face and not resent it when it’s unpalatable, and take human nature as you find it, smiling when it’s absurd and grieved without exaggeration when it’s pitiful, is to be cynical, then I suppose I’m a cynic. Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep.’

The extracts might not appeal to many, but even the narrative in itself is still educative and entertaining. Maugham retains his classic touch of ensuring that the story as an opening, a middle and an end. So a story that begins with the knobbly problem of Tim Saffary’s marital woes, proceeds to the middle when he looks for the next course of action and chances to take some advise from George Moon. The end is the juiciest bit where George Moon finds a solution for the Gordian knot – he reconcile Tim Saffary with both his hurt ego and his distraught wife.

Moon also makes an indirect comment on the need to strike the right ‘work/life’ balance as otherwise a professionally successful career too holds no meaning if one’s family is not around to enjoy its fruits. Maugham wrote the tale in 1933 – more than 80 years ago. And to imagine that his ‘object lessons’ are relevant even today – surely a good sign of the Master’s enduring legacy.

Credit: Bloomberg Courtesy: Getty Images
Credit: Bloomberg
Courtesy: Getty Images

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