BOOK REVIEW: The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta SuiteThe Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas that feature Westerners out of their league in India. As an American living in India, I suspect anyone who’s had this experience will recognize instances in which—for good, bad, or a mix of each—one is swallowed whole by some feature of India that one couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The novellas aren’t interconnected, except by way of the themes that run through them and Theroux’s trademark use of what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—cameo references. These aren’t his own cameo appearances in the book—as he’s also been known to do—but rather minor instances in which the lives of the characters in one story brush up against those in another.

The first of the novellas is called “Monkey Hill,” and it features a tourist couple who are staying at an upscale resort that’s near a town with a large Hanuman temple. (Hanuman is the “monkey-god” of Hinduism, a popular deity with a monkey-like face and a man-like body who features prominently in the epic entitled Ramayana.) The resort grounds also have monkeys, and so there are two potential meanings to the title. Like many wealthy travelers to India, the couple isn’t really experiencing India—though, like the characters in the other stories, they end up doing so in a major way by the story’s end. Experiencing India in unexpected ways is a central theme across the three works. The couple’s only real experience of India comes through each of their respective dalliances with locals that are carried out unbeknownst to the other. (I would point out that characters who aren’t particularly high in moral fiber are another prevailing theme across these stories, but really such characters are a hallmark of Theroux’s writing in general.)

“The Gateway of India,” as Bombay visitors might suspect, is set in that city and the waterfront attraction features prominently in the novel. The lead in this story is a business traveler who’s staying in the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. (The hotel overlooks the Gateway and was allegedly built by a pissed off J.N. Tata who was irate because, as a Parsi, he wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the upscale hotels because they exclusively catered to Westerners. As a “screw-you,” he built the most elegant hotel in the country at the time.) At the story’s beginning, our business traveler is a caricature of business travelers to India. He’s too scared to eat or drink anything that isn’t from a five-star hotel—and even then he’s wary. He’s filled with disgust whenever he rides through town or interacts with locals in the street. By turns, he’s transformed over the course of the story. Like the couple in “Monkey Hill” his introduction to the real India comes from a sexual liaison with a native. That said, this story features the most positive character transformation of the three stories. This is the one “feel-good” transformation of the three.

The final novella, entitled “The Elephant God,” begins in Mumbai, but is largely set in Bangalore. This story features yet another class of traveler to India–the backpacker. This lead is a young woman who is traveling on a tight budget while staying at an ashram. Beginning the story in Mumbai allows the reader to see how the backpacker loses her traveling companion, an issue that will prove crucial to the story’s resolution. As one might expect of a backpacker, our protagonist has had a truer experience of India than the wealthy protagonists of the other stories. She knows a little of the indigenous culture and how real people behave faced with real world events. In fact, there’s an intriguing piece of the story line that involves a job she gets teaching English to employees of a call center for a multinational corporation. [It should strain credulity that she’d be able to get a job on the visa she would have, but this is India.] At any rate, she begins to realize that—by teaching the call-takers to speak to American customers in a way that will make Americans comfortable—she’s essentially turning them rude—all their endearing deferential mannerisms fade in the face of her teachings. She feels bad about this. The titular reference involves an elephant and its handler (mahout) that she befriends. (In two years living in Bangalore, I’ve not seen an elephant living inside the city, but I can’t say that I found this aspect of the story unbelievable. I have seen, for example, the equally improbable camel or two.) The elephant isn’t a major feature of the story until the climax, though visits do recur.

I enjoyed these stories and would recommend The Elephanta Suite–particularly for any Westerners who have spent, or plan to spend, substantial time in India. The book may not surprise or inform such readers, but it’ll probably resonate with them.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

A Dead Hand: A Crime in CalcuttaA Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Dead Hand opens with the protagonist, Jerry Delfont, receiving an unexpected and unusual letter. Delfont is a traveling writer who is temporarily in Calcutta. The letter is from an American businesswoman and philanthropist who seems to have gone native in India. The woman, Merrill “Ma” Unger, asks Delfont to investigate a mysterious event involving her son’s boyfriend, a young Indian man named Rajat.

Rajat claims to have woken up one night in his cheap hotel room to find the dead body of a boy on the floor. Rajat panicked and left, and is living in fear that he will be picked by the police.

The book in part traces Delfont’s investigation of this mysterious body, and in part describes his burgeoning relationship with “Ma” Unger. The former is slow going through the first 2/3 of the book, and at some points one wonders if Delfont has forgotten about the investigation altogether.

The title has a dual meaning. It describes both the writer’s block Delfont is suffering at the beginning of the book and the actual physical hand that turns up as the sole remaining trace of the dead boy who turns out really was in Rajat’s room.

Coming from famed traveling writer Paul Theroux, it’s no surprise that the development of setting is phenomenal. Theroux not only gives one a sense of the sights, sounds, and scents of Calcutta, he also gives the reader insight into the human dimension of India through a number of supporting characters. There is a passionate young woman who writes poetry and practices the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu. She is a strong, bright, and independent woman but is stuck in a world of arranged marriages and sexual repression. Despite the official end of the caste system, we see completely subservient Indians as well as others who think they are beyond talking to a lowly writer.

The plotting is solid. It’s neither exceptional nor so flat or formulaic as to be boring. I, who am not particularly good at foreseeing plot twists, did anticipate the ending–at least in broad brush stroke terms. However, the book kept me interested and reading. There was a clear narrative arc and the main character definitely undergoes a change over the course of the book (more on that below.)

In my opinion, the book’s weakness is in character development, and specifically Delfont’s character. We are introduced to a Delfont who is having a tough time, but is essentially a likable guy with his head on straight. However, as he begins to fall for “Ma” Unger, he seems increasingly pathetic. Specifically, he falls into this weird relationship in which he seems to see her both sexually and maternally, and–like a schoolboy with a crush–he wants to do anything he can to please her and to gain her attention. Now, being pathetic is a little like being crazy. If the character knows or suspects they are crazy, then how crazy can they really be? Because Delfont recognizes he’s being pathetic, he remains a sympathetic character. However, I think Theroux over hammers the degree to which Delfont is smitten until we begin to think he is obsessed. The problem is that it makes his transformation and that of his relationship with “Ma”, which happens like the flip of a switch, less credible.

All and all, I would recommend this book. I think it’s particularly interesting for one who wants greater insight into India and, specifically, Calcutta.

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WRITING DEVICES: The Author Cameo in A Dead Hand

I’ll soon finish reading a novel by Paul Theroux called A Dead Hand. I won’t get into the details of the book in this post because I’ll do a review later, but there’s a writing device in it that really intrigued me. Theroux inserts himself into the novel in a cameo role as a competitor to the protagonist. That is to say, the main character is a traveling writer who writes mostly magazine articles, while Theroux a prolific writer famous for travelogues such as The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,  as well as for many novels which are written with a travel writer’s sensibility for location. (A Dead Hand takes place in and around Calcutta, India.)

I enjoyed the author cameo. It would only work well for a writer like Theroux, one who is both well-known and, because of his nonfiction work, who readers have a feel for as a person. Still, I couldn’t think of another novel I’ve read in which this has been done. I’ve only read Theroux’s nonfiction so far, so maybe this is a running gag with him.

Inserting himself offers some opportunity for adding humor. For example, there’s a part in which the main character’s friend, who is also a go-between who introduces the two writers, says, “He [Theroux] said he wanted to take the train from Battambang to Phnom Penh.”

To which the main character replies, “He would. The bus is quicker!”

This technique also gives one the impression that we are getting some inside insight into the writer. When the main character mistrusts the author, how are we to process that?

Granted it’s a little like an actor looking into the camera and talking straight to the audience.

I’m interested to hear if this is a more widespread technique than I’m aware of? Who else does this?