Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s novel, Whiteman, received the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, and is loosely based on his Peace Corps service in an Ivory Coast headed for civil war. His second novel, The Konkans, is loosely based on his mother’s Peace Corps service in India from 1969 to 1970 where she met and married his father. Tony has contributed fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta, McSweeney’s, the O. Henry Awards, and Best American Fantasy, and is the recipient of two NEA Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and gold and silver medals from the Florida Book Awards. He lives in Sarasota, FL, with his wife Jessyka and two young children, Gwen, 18 months, and Rohan, 6 months. The D’Souzas are spending the next few months traveling in India.
Here, Tony reviews Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta.
A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 2000–02 & Madagascar 2002–03)
Paul Theroux’s new novel, A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, will surely please his fans, not only for the lovely, metallic cover image of Kali, the Hindu goddess of annihilation made famous in the West by her blood thirsty thugee devotees in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but also for his usual gorgeous landscapes and keen city details that pervade the book. This time, Theroux takes us primarily to Calcutta, visiting a wide range of budget and luxury hotels, then away on a few overnight trains, most notably “off the map” to Silchar in far eastern Assam where only the most intrepid travelers make it these days because of dacoits, extremists, “rebels and goondas and tribals.” All the while, he spins an engaging tale of exploitation and murder focusing on a Mother Theresa-esque American ex-pat who runs an expansive charity in the dirty city as she wallows in ayurvedic massages in her palatial retreats. To flavor this East Indian spice pot of a novel, Theroux sprinkles in liberal amounts of, ahem, graphic oral sex.
The story begins in that dreary place and state of mind that many travel writers or ex-pat novelists will immediately recognize as home: a hot and squalid room in a squalid corner of a squalid Third World city with nothing at all to write about and even less to do. This is the “dead hand” of the novel, its travel writer protagonist, Jerry Delfont, middle aged and still far from rich, has just completed some ‘”pay the bills” speaking appearances on behalf of the US Embassy’s cultural wing, and is stumped as to what to do next, both with his life, and his art. The page remains blank before him day after existentially excruciating day, and he’s sure that this time he’ll never write again. Then a letter arrives inviting him into the world of the also middle aged, yet lithe, supple, dominant, and sensual Mrs. Merrill Unger, a filthy rich American woman who runs a charity for Calcutta’s orphans. Mrs. Unger asks Delfont to investigate a death for her — that of a child found on the floor of her effete ward’s Bengali lover. Soon enough Delfont comes into possession of the dead boy’s withered hand, and the pages begin to fly along.
I drew the assignment of this review for a couple of reasons, firstly, I like Theroux’s work, and secondly, I also happen to be in India, have read the book in a couple of sittings on overnight trains in Rajasthan and Punjab. I’ve been skirting the Pakistan border for the better part of a week, and now I’m in Srinagar, way up in contested Kashmir. As the son of a south Indian patriot, I’m usually in line with the first of those to let up the patriotic cry of “Hindustan zindabad!” but the sight of the entrenched Indian military in the once lovely streets of Srinagar has got me thinking along other lines. In the question of India versus Pakistan, I’ve always seen India as a real nation and Pakistan as a fabricated one. But reading A Dead Hand with all it’s descriptions of strange and tenuously Indian far eastern Bengal has let me know that India is as ersatz a place as her enemy is.
A review of someone else’s book isn’t usually the place to get across a point of international arcane information, but I’ve allowed myself to do so here because of what Theroux himself does halfway through his novel: he makes an appearance in his own fiction. To be completely clear, I have to admit that even having read the novel, I needed to glance at the dusk jacket to catch the main character’s name. I read this first person tale as a thinly veiled autobiographical moment: Theroux must have been giving these drab lectures in Calcutta and come across a bout of writer’s block. So he started writing about that, and viola, a novel.
But as though to say that this isn’t the case at all, Theroux has Jerry Delfont and Paul Theroux sit down face to face at the Fairlawn Hotel midway through the book. Theroux in the novel is passing through town, has heard of Delfont and wants to meet him; Delfont is worried that Theroux will scoop his unfolding story. What transpires is a twelve-page cat and mouse game between the two writers of literary one-upmanship and coup counting, Delfont withering before the famed man’s gaze.
What I knew about Theroux was . . . [h]e was known for being intrusive, especially among the unsuspecting strangers he met on trains, travelers who had no idea who he was . . . I suspected that most of what he wrote was fiction . . . I knew the temptation to improve quotations or to dramatize chance encounters and far-off landscapes . . . But he was too explicit to be convincing. Life was seldom so neat . . . I resented his book sales and his bonhomie.
I still don’t know what the nut of this meeting is or why Theroux put a version of himself in the novel. How, for example, am I to trust Delfont’s assessment of Theroux, when both are creations of the same mind? And that’s the fun of it, this self-portraiture through mirror. Are we meant to take it, perhaps, as an honest assessment by Theroux of himself at this stage of his life? Delfont continues,
Theroux’s hair was thinner, but no writer’s hair looks in the least like the hair in his photograph . . . [He] looked hot and obvious, fleshier . . . not vulpine at all but preoccupied, flexing his fingers in a displacement activity to use his hands, as though he wanted to be writing down what I was saying or making notes. [He] appeared older than his picture; he’d lost his looks, if indeed he’d ever had them . . . He was friendly in a way that bothered me, because I knew he didn’t mean it. “I haven’t seen the Jerry Delfont byline lately,” he said. “Are you on assignment?” “In a way,” I said, and we both knew that this meant no.
As quickly as he enters the book, Theroux is gone again. What remains is a mildly muddled novel, rich with those gorgeous landscapes:
At dawn we were among low, mostly bald hills, the old train rolling on the scooped and flattened outskirts of Silchar. Shallow valleys and tea estates, each one well planted with slopes of deep green bushes, as orderly as a botanical garden, all the bushes trimmed like topiary. Where the land was flat there were currogations of newly plowed fields. The tea pickers were visible on some of the slopes, looking as if they were tidying the bushes.
And, of course, the oral sex:
“Find the sacred spot,” [Mrs. Unger] said in a whisper… Obeying her, I stroked her beautiful blossom very gently until I had opened it further and my fingers were slick . . . And so I lay there, for the longest time, like a mating insect, until at last, rapturous and writhing on the bed, she sighed. She let out a long groan as dramatic as a death rattle, almost as deep as grief, and at the same time clapped her thighs to my ears.
There is plenty to criticize in this book, and I’m sure that other reviewers will be sticking it to Theroux this time. Mrs. Unger’s invitation to Delfont to look into the murder doesn’t make sense, and the forays into forensic investigation suggest that the author has been watching too much CSI. All of that aside, the novel is jaunty and fun, and it gets India right. Even being here myself, I felt that I was visiting the country through his book. And being that it’s Paul Theroux, some of the hotels he writes about are, thank God, nicer, cleaner, and much more comfortable than the ones that I can currently afford.
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