Friday, November 13, 2009

Notes on Paul Theroux's A Dead Hand

Just finished Paul Theroux’s new novel A Dead Hand, which features a Theroux-like narrator-protagonist – Jerry Delfont, an itinerant travel writer currently living in Calcutta, looking for a story, and suffering from a bad case of writer’s block or inertia. He has an impressive opening paragraph (or what he thinks is an impressive opening paragraph) that compares the city’s atmosphere to a bulging vacuum-cleaner dirt-bag, but that’s about it. In other words, he has a “dead hand” – “it seemed a true description of what I was facing, a limpness akin to an amputation” – and being middle-aged, he worries that this might herald a permanent decline.

But there’s more than one kind of dead hand in this novel. The other, more literal manifestation emerges soon after Jerry is approached by an American philanthropist, Mrs Unger, who asks him to investigate an incident involving a little boy’s corpse in a dingy little hotel room. Initially unwilling to get involved, Jerry finds himself besotted – in ways that he can’t fully articulate – by the enigmatic, maternal yet sensuous Mrs Unger. He also discovers that there’s nothing in the least dead about her hand: an almost magically skilled masseuse, she soon has him under her thumb, in more than one sense.

Paul Theroux himself isn’t the sort of author who you’d think struggles much when it comes to filling a page with words: he’s remarkably prolific, having averaged around a book a year for the better part of four decades – this includes the travel writing for which he is best known, as well as fiction that frequently draws on his experiences of traveling and living in different lands. He’s a polished, fluent writer – the quality of his prose is better than one usually expects from genre fiction (and A Dead Hand is very much a genre thriller). As in previous books, notably The Elephanta Suite, he has a way of capturing little things about India that might make Indians bristle – and even lead to accusations of an outsider being patronising or promoting stereotypes – but which have the ring of uncomfortable truth about them. “As I was leaving,” says Jerry at one point, “I heard him shout – a bawling in Bengali, the sort of rage I’d heard before in India, uninhibited indignation, pure fury, always a man screaming at a woman.” And this, when referring to certain middle-class Indians whose English combines grammatical incorrectness with a florid over-formality that suggests the colonial legacy: “They had the language for every occasion. It was still possible to be subtle, even sinuous, in a conversation, probably as a result of the weirdly Victorian verbosity, using politeness and amplification and elaborate excuses and courtesies.” On yet another occasion, Jerry says that “India’s human features” frighten him, but then speculates that “I saw doomed people where [Mrs Unger] saw life and hope, because I was doing nothing and she was bringing help.”

Also present here is some of the exoticising that so raises the hackles of many of us Indian readers - references to Tantric sex and Kali worship, for instance (see on left the international cover I found on, a Kali with a stylishly skewed third eye!). Of course, one mustn't confuse narrator with author: Jerry is given to painting with much broader brush-strokes than Theroux himself would. But he can certainly be seen as a version of Theroux, perhaps a more callow version. Or perhaps a lazier, less ambitious version, the sort of man who would hide behind the façade of “writer’s block”. This parallel is underlined for us midway through the book – in a passage that doesn’t take the main narrative forward but is very intriguing on its own terms – when Jerry has a brief meeting with the travel writer “Paul Theroux”, who happens to be visiting Calcutta. During the course of their exchange, we get a vivid, cynical image of an inquisitive writer as someone who pokes a wary animal: “It was not only cruel, but the torment evoked an uncharacteristic and untrue reaction.”

Despite thoughtful passages like this, A Dead Hand has a peculiarly rushed and unfinished feel about it. The book’s target reader would seem to be someone who simply wants a cosy little Oriental mystery (the subtitle “A Crime in Calcutta” suggests as much), and in this sense it never quite satisfies. Early on, when we learn that Mrs Unger’s largesse extends to rescuing and caring for some of the city’s huge population of orphaned children, it isn’t too difficult to guess the general direction where the story is headed, and I kept waiting for a twist that would add a new, unanticipated dimension. However, this never quite happens; the book doesn’t seem to want to be a conventional whodunit (or whadhappened). But in that case, what is it? Is it more about slowly unwrapping the many veils that conceal the real Mrs Unger (something one can’t be sure Jerry has succeeded in doing by the end of the book)? Or is this inscrutable woman an elaborate symbol for Calcutta – and, by extension, for India? A Dead Hand raises these questions but leaves them dangling in the musty air of the dirt-bag.


  1. Haven't read Theroux. But I gather from your post that his writings on India and Indians is influenced by the travelogues of Naipaul, his erstwhile mentor.

    The first two books in Naipaul's "Indian trilogy" - An Area of Darkness and India - A Wounded Civilization are deeply pessimistic and extremely critical of Indian habits littered with observations similar to the ones you cite here.

  2. I agree with Shrikanth about the portrayal of Indian in these novels .But to some extent it is not beyond comprehension. These books are primarily written for a Western audience who live in a Time wrap and love to see India as a country of snake charmer or who want to indulge in pursuit of Kitsch by sympathizing with poor unsophisticated masses of Indians.

    Naipaul and his likes are, as a critic put it , Brown Mouthpiece of Whiteman.

  3. Prashant: The sentence "Naipaul and his likes are Brown Mouthpiece of Whiteman" is much more of a simplistic generalisation/judgement than anything Naipaul and most of these so-called "mouthpieces" have written. There may be a lot of pessimism in Naipaul's work (and the man himself fairly insufferable in many ways), but there's also a huge amount that's deeply nuanced and perceptive. His reputation as one of the great English-language writers of the last century definitely hasn't been founded on his neat packaging of India for a hypothetical smug and insular Western reader.

    At any rate, this idea that the West is littered with Indian-origin writers who write mainly "to exoticise India as a land of snake-charmers for a Western readership" is itself a lazy and too-carelessly repeated one. Which is not to say that there's no truth in it at all. But the situation is definitely not that black and white.

  4. I'll also shortly put up a link to an essay I wrote for a magazine, which touched on this subject (the supposed stereotyping of India by Indian Anglophone writers). Never put it up on the blog for some reason.

  5. Looking forward to reading your essay . and I must say here for the record that one book I like most and which don't do this stereotype is "Inspite of God" Which I bought after reading the review here .

  6. I must admit I quite like Theroux's cynicism. But the Indian sections of The Great Railway Bazaar left me more perplexed than indignant, as it didn't ring true. So I approach all his other books with some scepticism. Perhaps its true of many travel writers though. I liked Pico Iyer's Falling off the Map but after living in Oz his section on the country in the book comes across as a bit of a howler.

    I guess with many writers writing about places you can enjoy the writing but you can't take the impressions they record as truly representative of the lands they pass through or free of biases.

  7. Anu: yes, but none of us is truly free of biases, no? The idea that any writer can be reminds me of the commonly expressed notion in certain circles that a review should be "objective".

    I suppose, in a larger, philosophical sense, one shouldn't take any writing as truly representative of anything!

  8. Oh yes I quite agree re biases.

    Part of the fun of reading is that for for a brief moment you look at the world through the writer's eyes, I suppose the effectiveness of a writer lies in immersing you in their world not necessarily in whether they "got it right". And there is often little need to get agitated the way we do in India about people not getting it right.

    I suppose it's that old Rashomon chestnut - that there are different perspectives regarding anything :-)

  9. Anu: yes, this seems like we're coming uncomfortably close to the "anything goes" stance, but that isn't quite the case. Obviously, the work of any writer is subject to analysis and criticism - whether it's Naipaul or Theroux or a blinkered hack who can't open himself to new experiences/cultures. And an engaged, honest review will in turn tell you about the critic's "biases". So it goes.

    I suppose the effectiveness of a writer lies in immersing you in their world not necessarily in whether they "got it right"

    I'd also add that for "their world" to be genuinely interesting to a reader (speaking for myself, at least), one would have to get the impression that the writer has at least made an effort to understand the things around him and to engage with them, before forming a positive or negative impression. Though of course, one can indirectly learn things about the human condition even by reading the most mediocre, vapid and unperceptive writing!

    One interesting thing about A Dead Hand, as I've tried to indicate in the post, is that it's written in the first person by a fictional narrator who happens to be a travel writer but who also comes across as slightly more condescending towards India than Theroux is himself. This blurs the author/narrator line considerably at times, so that even when the voice is Jerry Delfont's, one occasionally wonders if Theroux himself holds some of these views.

  10. Prashant: To be fair to Naipaul, he has been just as critical of America and England in several other writings.

    I'd anyday prefer An Area of Darkness over the cliched, uncritical observations of a Shashi Tharoor.

    Here's a speech by Naipaul that I love to revisit and recommend. Pretty much sums up his views on the "Third World".

  11. Yes, I did notice that bit on the blurring between the fictional and "real" writer, it's an interesting point. I would guess that it's a bit of both i.e. fictional and views held by PT?

    I didn't quite mean it as an anything goes but will leave it at that. Posting responses is always slightly uncomfortable - generally an interesting post generates a few strands of thoughts but you are trying to be brief and not kind of go on a freewheeling and lengthy spiel of your own!!

  12. Anu: oh, when I said "this seems like we're coming uncomfortably close to the 'anything goes' stance", I was talking mainly about my own reply to your first comment - the "philosophical" blah-blah!

  13. Oh OK - clearly I needed some caffeine before posting!

  14. Jai

    Theroux is in the running for the "2009 Bad Sex
    Writing" for a passage from this book... . hehe..good company though..Roth is there too

  15. Haha! When did Jai Arjun convert from a Naipaul baiter to an apologetic (I am of the latter variety) Still good to confirm you are the flexible, non-dogmatic reviewer I had always imagined ;)

  16. Haha! When did Jai Arjun convert from a Naipaul baiter to an apologetic (I am of the latter variety) Still good to confirm you are the flexible, non-dogmatic reviewer I had always imagined ;)