Sunday, April 25, 2010

Crime Fiction? A DEAD HAND, A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux

Over the winter I read Paul Theroux's marvelous journey tale, DARK STAR SAFARI, which captures the paradoxes of being a midlife explorer: regrets about leaving family behind, physical challenges, and yet the compulsion to see what's across the next border or down the next railway line. I couldn't put it down, even though I thought the ending lacked some craft. It felt like a worthy successor to those long-ago classics that Theroux gave us, THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR and THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS. Theroux doesn't apologize for living in a "developed" country and doesn't overanalyze the differences between his home life and what he encounters on the road -- and he welcomes difference in all its color and aromas. He's a marvelous guide.

I wish he'd written A DEAD HAND as an exploration of Calcutta, with its rich and desperately poor, its nuances of religion and ecstasy, its haunted beauty and its bacteriological dangers. (Two people about whom I care very much are haunted for life by the results of parasites acquired in India.) Probably I would have enjoyed that book more than the one he actually delivered. A cover-to-cover erotic adventure with dark twists of control and submission, its images haunt in unpleasant ways. Moreover, its subtitle promises that it will be a mystery, yet the book fails to deliver for the genre because its narrator and villains lack insight, and the key "twist" is broadcast too far in advance and fails to surprise or enlighten or wound.

Without going into the erotic passages, here's a fairly typical paragraph from what ought to have been a revelatory moment in the book, and that shows the mingling of Theroux-as-gifted-narrator and Theroux as inefficient plotter of crime:
"I am well, uncle. Thank you."

He had a soft but certain voice, and he stood very straight, his head erect, his arms at his sides in a posture of obedience. From his shallow breathing and the shutter-blink of his eyelashes I could see that he was nervous, yet he had been so schooled in manners that he knew how to stand his ground. He was posed as a dutiful underling is posed. He knew better than to slouch; he was alert, polite, watchful without seeming worried. And somehow his anxiety only enhanced these traits, because for all his frailty he showed courage. Though he might have been older, and he seemed serious, even careworn, he didn't look more than ten or eleven -- a small unswerving soldier. And I like being called uncle.
Interestingly, though, this is also a bibliomystery, with one of its pins being the narrator's deadening case of writer's block. And with that in mind, I'll admit that maybe this was the only framework in which Theroux felt he could convey his experience of Calcutta and of India as a whole.

That said, it's not a book I'll read a second time. Too much work, for not enough delight.

1 comment:

Harvee, Book Dilettante said...

I'd love to read Dark Star Safari. I think A Dead Hand tells us about Calcutta in a way that Theroux probably could not in a nonfiction travel book. A way to say what you want to say without saying it! I agree about the plot and wish he had consulted a crime novelist for it! Hope he does, next time!

Book Dilettante