Tania James’ Loot Review: Viewing Imperialism from the Perspective of a Tiger
Tania James’s fiction has straddled continents since the publication of her 2009 debut, Atlas of Unknowns. In Loot, her third full-length novel, she brings this transnational perspective to the story of a real-life artefact and the fictional characters drawn into its gravitational pull.
The subject of interest, referred to as Tipu’s Tiger, is a wooden automaton that was commissioned by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Mysore kingdom in India, in the 1790s. It currently resides in the V&A and depicts a life-sized tiger attacking a European soldier, with a mechanism inside that produces a growling sound when a crank is turned. The origin of the tiger is unknown, but according to an author’s note, its craftsmanship suggests a combination of Indian and French skills. Based on these limited details, James imagines a range of characters whose connections span 50 years and half the world.
The story opens in the palace of Srirangapatna, introducing the main characters: Abbas, a talented 17-year-old son of a woodcarver, and Lucien Du Leze, a French clockmaker who is gay and struggles with alcoholism. Due to the Revolution, Lucien is unable to go back home. Tipu requests that they work together to create a musical tiger as a present for his beloved son. However, as with all relationships in the novel, this seemingly kind act of paternal love is muddied by political motivations.
Although the automaton is considered a great achievement, Abbas is unable to enjoy his newfound status in the palace for long. Just as he is finishing his apprenticeship with Du Leze, the city is besieged by the British and the sultan is killed. Abbas narrowly escapes the massacre and is forced to flee the kingdom. Through a series of adventurous events, he eventually ends up in Rouen where he works for Du Leze’s adopted daughter, Jehanne. His only goal is to create something that will outlast him and leave a lasting memory of his name. Together, they devise a plan to retrieve the automaton from the widow of Lord Selwyn, a British soldier who had taken it after the siege.
The book is heavily based on historical research, covering topics such as woodcarving and life on sailing ships. However, the author’s intention is not to create a realistic portrayal. Instead, the novel focuses on the enjoyment of artifice and the skills needed to replicate life. The author cleverly incorporates modern references into the historical language, reminding readers of the artificial nature of the story. These references include Tipu’s “origin story” and a quote from the late Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who passed away in 2018.
James emphasizes the deliberate construction of her story because she uses the historical backdrop to explore current discussions surrounding the aftermath of colonialism, specifically in regards to stolen treasures. The title is directly referenced in a card game played by Jehanne and the cunning Lady Selwyn, but the novel consistently depicts the appropriation of objects and individuals by those in positions of power in a society where race is the ultimate determinant. Loot is a clever and lively reimagination of a moment in history that still influences contemporary society, challenging our perspectives on art, identity, and possession.