The Root and the Flower
The Root and the Flower was originally published between 1929 and 1935 as three separate novels. Set in late 16th century India during the reign of the great Mughal emperor Akbar, this epic focuses on the family of Amar, a prince contemplating retirement to a Buddhist monastery. He plans to leave the care of his state and his heir, twelve-year-old Jali, to his Christian wife, Sita. But as Akbar’s sons vie for power, withdrawal from the world seems a foolhardy choice. With his brother-in-law involved in a dangerous romance, and Jali drawn into the circles of the untrustworthy Prince Daniyal, can Amar really relinquish his responsibilities?
This hefty novel is no easy read. In her introduction, Penelope Fitzgerald insists that Myers’ “strange masterpiece” is not a philosophical novel, since his characters provoke thought on life and its concerns, rather than representing ideas. True as this may be, the story comes across as subservient to the author’s exploration of the transcendental question, “Why are we here?” The historical backdrop seems incidental, though I think Myers chose Mughal India as his setting because its ethnic, religious, and political tensions invite such exploration.
Contemporary readers may find the absence of vibrant action and fast-paced dialogue tedious, the characters and their motives ambiguous. But this novel is beautifully written, and, if one can last through 639 pages of fine print, a fascinating read.