Religious Entrepreneurship in Nevil Shute’s Round the Bend

September 8, 2021 § Leave a comment

I am currently podcasting a book club with my father on Nevil Shute‘s novel Round the Bend. The framing question we are using for our discussions is “What is this book about?” There are a number of different themes that have come up (e.g., technology, love, and racism), but my current hypothesis is that the book is primarily about “Religious Entrepreneurship”, a sort of cousin to the Spiritual Entrepreneurship I studied with Hatchery LA.

Here (four chapters in) is how and why I think the author wrote this book. This is all purely hypothetical on my part; I have not done any actual research on his methods. However, this reflects the kind of process that I could see myself going through, based on comments the author made about the context in which the protagonist built his business.

  1. At that time, it seems that Asian mechanics were (known for being) lackluster in their attention to technical details, but rigorous in their attendance to religious duties. The author may have fantasized, “If they were only equally fanatical about aircraft maintenance, I would have the best technicians in the world!”
  2. Given that, it is a small step to imagine also using Asian pilots, thereby providing a vastly superior cost structure for building out a fleet of charter aircrafts (something he explicitly points out is impossible when paying British rates)
  3. But who would run this fleet? For both his and his reader’s familiarity, the viewpoint character would need to be an Englishman. But what kind of Brit would give up family and country for such backbreaking work overseas? Why, one who both loved airplanes and was fleeing a tragic failed marriage. The author implies hurried wartime marriages (and subsequent unfaithfulness) were fairly common, giving him the perfect pretext for sending the hero out on this quest.
  4. That said, an Englishman would not make a credible guru for evangelizing religious aircraft maintenance. Better to have an Asian play that role. Better yet, make the guru a half-Asian, whose mind was formed in England but whose spirit yearns for his Asian roots. (Ouch, I resemble that remark!)
  5. The simplest choice would have been to make this guru a Muslim, as the Middle East is the central locale of the book. However, the author decided to go much bigger, and make him a trans-religious, even Messianic figure.

This reconstruction seems to fit both Nevil Shute’s technical background (as someone who ran his own aircraft company) and fascination with mysticism (as evidenced in many of his books). The idea of a lonely Englishman building a global business in the shadow of World War II was presumably an easy sell for the publisher.

However, as of Chapter 4 of the book (which I last read in the 1980’s), it is not clear to me whether his religious insight from (1) is strong enough to justify the ambition of (5). Stay tuned to find out what happens next!

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