Friday 13 November 2009

Navel-gazing in India

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta is Paul Theroux’s 47th book. In it he resurrects material only recently laid to rest following his trilogy of novellas, The Elephanta Suite. Both books focus on Americans in India, looking with a critical eye at the attempts made by travellers and ex-pats to engage with a culture they do not fully respect or understand. The Elephanta Suite was not well-received: Theroux’s take on India was called ‘one-sided’; he was accused of using tired narrative devices to tell his story; and some found the erotic elements of the novellas unpalatable. A Dead Hand unfortunately suffers from many of the same ills.

Our protagonist and narrator (referred to by name only in the jacket blurb), Jerry Delfont, is a travel writer – a magazine journalist, to be exact – facing a mini mid-life crisis. Loitering in Calcutta without a commission, his only labour the occasional lecture for ex-pats organised by a friend at the American embassy, he feels impotent and humiliated, incapable of writing. A hopeless flirtation with a highly eligible young Indian woman only increases his sense of self-loathing. 

It is only the arrival of a letter from the intriguing and beautiful Merrill Unger, a widowed American philanthropist living in Calcutta, that shakes him from his languor. She has a mystery she needs help solving and although Delfont has trouble understanding why he has been chosen for such a task, he agrees to make some enquiries.

What follows is a detective story of moderate excitement value, as Delfont investigates the mysterious appearance of a corpse in the seedy hotel room of a friend of Mrs Unger’s son. The mystery itself is well handled. Theroux fills his novel with inexplicably apoplectic hotel managers, moustachioed police chiefs and clandestine meetings in overgrown cemeteries. Rife with cliché in just the right way, A Dead Hand will please fans of the detective thriller. Its characters are two-dimensional, but with a rollicking story to follow, who cares?

Where it disappoints is in all the material surrounding this plot, which is lazily written, extremely baggy in places and agonisingly repetitive. The novel feels decidedly rushed – unsurprising given the fact that it is his third published work in three years, following Ghost Train to the Eastern Star last year and The Elephanta Suite the year before that – and a vigorous round of editing and perhaps a redraft wouldn’t have gone amiss here. It also smacks of cynicism, one of the clearest examples of which is the appearance of a travel writer named Paul Theroux. Now, Theroux is known for including versions of himself in his novels, so his cameo in A Dead Hand shouldn’t be entirely surprising. But whereas in his other work such autobiographical portraits serve to further the plot in some way, the fictional Paul Theroux in A Dead Hand is merely there to give the real-life writer the opportunity to take part in some literary navel-gazing.

As our protagonist follows up leads his relationship with Mrs Unger develops until his feelings for her become what can only be described as obsessive. ‘Yet she existed within me. She had insinuated herself there, her spirit lived inside me’ (p88). Theroux does very little in terms of character-development with the widow, so we have to take Delfont’s devotion for her mainly on trust. Her most attractive trait – and presumably the one that proves so alluring for Delfont – is her skill at tantric massage. Over the course of the novel we are treated to many pages on the hours she spends ‘interrogating [his] flesh with her fingers’ in the subterranean vault of her decaying Calcutta mansion (p85). These sexually charged scenarios verge on parody. A by-product of her devotion to tantrism, Mrs Unger’s dirty talk comprises of a large number of quasi-spiritual euphemisms that include the brilliant, ‘Pray with your mouth’. Delfont’s responses to such language suggest that Theroux is aware of the absurdity of this dialogue, but when our narrator uses lines like, ‘She used both hands, her clutching fingers, to spread her sex like a flower’ (p162), we are led to the assumption that in fact Theroux’s idea of what makes good erotica is not that far from Mrs Unger’s.

The passages in which India itself features are some of the best in the book, notwithstanding the narrow view that Theroux presents. Architectural decay, wafts of incense, grasping hands and dirty streets dominate the narrative landscape. ‘The tang of spices from the shop next door to the Hastings, the rattle and beep of cars jostling with pedicabs on the back lanes, the babble of human voices, mostly hawkers; the sense of life being lived outdoors, the city exposed’ (p32). Theroux’s India may not be the balanced and multi-faceted one we see in the work of novelists like Salman Rushdie on the one hand, or Vikram Seth on the other, but the effect his writing creates is still highly atmospheric and of value for that reason.

There is no disputing the fact that Theroux is a great writer, but even great writers need to put a little effort – and, one would hope, a little love – into their work. A Dead Hand has the potential to be a thrilling whodunnit-inspired story, a revealing commentary on ex-pat life and an enlightening glimpse into the mind of a world-weary travel writer, but instead it leaves one feeling that Theroux is just knocking them out until he can get to magic number 50.


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