29 November 2009

A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

An Old Hand
Much to my disgrace, I had never read a book by Paul Theroux before this one. I had bought a copy of Riding the Iron Rooster (by train through China) years ago and when I received this one from Sunday Mid-day, it stared down at me from the bookshelf, even more reproachful than before. I read bits but it was far too interesting (and thick) to read in a hurry.

I found the style of the books very different from each other – not surprising since they were written more than twenty years apart. Besides, Rooster is a straightforward travel book whereas Dead Hand is a travel book in disguise – rather a sad disguise actually – as a crime novel.

Rooster was full of fun and I liked what Theroux said about Paris: “The centre is a masterpiece of preservation, but the suburbs such as this one are simple and awful. The brutal pavements and high windows of St. Jacques seemed designed to encourage suicide.” Of course this is true of most cities – even of Bombay if you remove the word “masterpiece”.
In Rooster, Theroux was travelling in a tour group and wrote, “It was extremely hard for me to appear to be a quiet, modest, incurious person. These people seemed to be illiterate, which was a virtue, because they didn’t know me.”
I was overwhelmed by the vanity of the statement till I it struck me that it’s probably better to be frank and honest than falsely modest. (Is that a poem? Ah, so there, perhaps I have more talent than is generally suspected.) My Sunday Mid-day review of A Dead Hand appeared today, and here's what it said:

I jumped into this book with eager anticipation, having just enjoyed Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai Chai, in which he mentions that he values his copy of The Great Railway Bazar signed by Theroux about as much as he would a copy of the Bible signed by God.
So I was horribly disappointed to find this book – though a brilliant travelogue strewn with precise but poetic descriptions – a complete disaster as a crime novel. It’s only the language, and to some extent the flow of narrative, that holds attention. The actual events are limp and though the characters are vivid, the relationships between them are awkward and the plot hangs clumsy.
This is a book that shows how easy it is to commit crimes and get away with them in India. It has two dead hands, one belonging to the unfortunate writer who tells us his story. He has not been able to write anything for ages until one day, listless in his hotel in Calcutta (the perfect place to feel like a failure; a place where the air reminded him of the times he’d emptied a vacuum cleaner bag), he receives a letter from a Mrs. Unger which draws him into the events which result in this novel.
Mrs. Unger is a matronly American do-gooder with a put-on British accent. Our hero claims to have wooed enough women in the past to know that only a woman’s trust – and hope – led to sex, but he’s soon madly in love with her. Tantric massage happens (this is India, after all) and, to cut a rather tedious story short, this book is presently pitted against Philip Roth’s The Humbling for the annual Bad Sex Awards. Unless Roth came up with something better than “the sacred spot on her lotus flower” and “my wand of light”, it gets my vote.
It’s only half way through the book that we learn that the narrator is not Theroux himself, when Theroux suddenly appears as a character and is cleverly sneered at as “the sort of writer who smiled and encouraged you to chatter and afterwards wrote a pitiless account of the conversation, playing up his knowingness. He was not cruel but he was unsparing.”
What I did enjoy about the book were the un-cruel and unsparing descriptions of India.
Unmarried women are like schoolgirls, in their good humour and with their restrictions; certain of the men, no matter how accomplished and successful, remain like big hairy boys, ungrateful and tantrum-prone and spoiled; a hijra is a fierce she-man. 
The mission in our blame-shifting society is to win at any cost and to be blameless, and the simplest way is to rubbish the underlings. 
All of India is a work in progress. (Do I mean progress? Never mind).
The ability to provide baksheesh is the principal determiner of a person’s worth in India.
What upset me was the slipping idiom. A privileged Indian might certainly say something like, “We are so materialistical”. However, a less-educated one would never ask, “Have you breakfasted?” (It’s “Have you taken break-fast?”) Or, for that matter, “I am having a brace of complaints about you – giving a nuisance in the night”: almost there, but “brace”? No!

Theroux knows India so well – surely he has friends who could help with stuff like this.