Sunday, December 24, 2006

Review : The Alchemy of Desire

"Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is," says the sardonic, unnamed narrator of "The Alchemy of Desire," as he hurls us into a cautionary tale of sexual desire and time. This is the debut novel of Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal, who is best known for his exposés in Tehelka, a newsweekly he founded and edits in New Delhi.

The crassness of the opening line leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, but delve deeper and the real reasons behind the narrator's erratic behavior begin to emerge. Tejpal uses this beginning to contrast with what he ultimately wants to say.

Much of the first third of the novel describes the narrator's relationship with his spouse, Fizz. The pair leave New Delhi for a remote village in the Himalayas, where the narrator tries to write the Great Indian Novel. Here, an unrealized memory of a long-dead woman, Catherine, stalks him and deprives him of all comfort but one: the slaking of desire.

The protagonist chances upon a trove of 64 notebooks in their new house in the Himalayas. The notebooks elaborate, in raunchy detail, the sexcapades of Catherine and her lover Gaj Singh, who had lived in the same house decades ago. Not only do the words begin to take over the narrator's life, but he is also haunted by Catherine's apparition in dreams. Gradually, Tejpal's hero is taken away from the real world into the nether depths of extreme passion. As he plumbs the illegible writings with feverish intensity, he is forced to stake everything, including ultimately his marital life, at the altar of sexually charged prose.

The next segment, Kama (Desire) shifts the focus to America and Catherine's life story. This is the point where the reader begins to make sense of the novel. Kama tracks Catherine's disgust with her prim American life, her impatience with her mother's Catholic religiosity and the pity she feels for her father's declining years. The distaste that she harbors for her state fuels her journeys through the cities of Europe, her travels interspersed with epistolary exchanges with her parents. Her Paris sojourn is the first turn in the novel's tide. Alluding to Catherine's antipathy for emotionless hedonism, Tejpal reverses the opening assertion of his novel: Desire is a wonderfully promiscuous thing, but when it is trapped in monogamy it cannot survive without love.

Interestingly, these passages mark the guest appearances of Somerset Maugham and Pablo Picasso in the narrative. Also, it is in Paris that Catherine meets her future husband, Mustafa Syed. She is beguiled by the charms of the Jagdevpur prince who "spoke English gently and with a fine sense for its sound." The novel takes her to India where she becomes Syed's wife and melds into a culture she has known all her life but never experienced. Catherine's bewilderment is dissipated by her husband's good advice: Be inscrutable.

After this, however, the novel momentarily slips into a mishmash of desire gone berserk. It is a wonder that it didn't occur to Tejpal, who purportedly knows so much about desire, that too much concupiscence, even in literary form, can move from edgy to bland to downright repulsive. By the time this roar dies down, one has had so much of Catherine's experimentation that one is almost relieved to see her dead.

The novel is again rescued toward the end by the narrator's haunting account of what passions possess us and which of those we cling to for reasons that are never fully known. There's also an exploration of how intense desire survives death to linger, imbuing everything it had once touched with a long-ago glow.

Despite warts, "Alchemy" is engaging because Tejpal binds the reader into a sordid tale of murderous intrigue, which concludes aptly.

The novel is, to use a clichéd phrase, thriller-like in its breathless pace. Tejpal's narrator is the portrait of an artist as the solitary reaper. Reaper of grim destinies and difficult emotions. That alone ensures that readers will connect with him at a deeply personal level.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Master of style

John Banville, on being awarded the Booker Prize for The Sea, had remarked, "It is nice to see a work of art win the Prize." If it had not been Banville, I would have dubbed the speaker an irritatingly arrogant man, but with him, these words, despite landing from the horse's mouth, do not lose sheen since they are the truth. Banville is master of self-reflective fiction.

First, it was The Sea that bowled me over, and now, The Untouchable. Banville's narrators in both are articulate English males pondering the emptiness in their lives. But why are these people racked by self doubt? Subconscious strands run through Banville's work, pointing to childhood traumas and missed opportunities. Max Morden and Victor Maskell (such snobbish, unreal names) owe a vote of thanks to their creator for making them masters of simile and the precise phrase. So much so that the reader is left gasping as he conjures each simile or metaphor, risen from unthinkable depths of the imagination, apt and striking at the same time. Is Banville a sorcerer or is he just supremely gifted? A party group becomes a flock of languorous pigeons; "swift, bug-eyed glances" are exchanged; a dining scene assumes Olympian proportions. And all these have been produced from a slender sheaf within The Untouchable.

He leads a deeply tormented inner life, does Maskell. Yet, he never loses the larger picture, always looking at and analysing events around him with an avuncular regard for the reader. None of this, mind you, is done for effect. Maskell's wisdom is closely tied up with his eccentricities and one wishes one knew such a man in life to understand more legibly the strands of concern that run through and ruin his life. This is not to suggest that Banville doesn't paint as broad a canvas for his narrator's character as allowed for within the confines of a novel. It is a mark of Banville's talent that Maskell becomes so real as to leap off the constraining environs - spying rings; the Blitz; private, encompassing grief - that the pages afford him.

Banville's writing reminds one of Alan Hollinghurst - words joined together with a blindingly posh simplicity; evolved imagery; deep sense of time and place. You open their books not to learn a story; you approach them with expectant trepidation at what amazing sights and sounds lurk in the folds of the next page.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Reviewer's Life

Came across this piece in Sunday's Boston Globe. Sven Birkerts will publish "Reading Life: Books for the Ages" early next year. He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and is lecturer in creative writing at Harvard. He is due to review Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, out in the US on Jan 9. Here he speaks about his reservations about the new age of blitzkrieg publicity, the exotic element in writing by authors of Indian origin, and his first impressions after "the recent thump at the front door followed by the receding grind and rattle of the morning UPS truck". Deja vu! Do all reviewers get butterflies in the tummy when the ringing of the doorbell may herald an expectant galley?

When I saw the thickness of the padded packet I knew it had to be a biography of a Civil War general or a new volume from the Library of America. But no, from the mailer I extracted an "advance reader's edition," weighing in at 900-plus pages, of "Sacred Games," by Indian novelist Vikram Chandra, a name only vaguely familiar to me, which is due out from HarperCollins in January.

..."Sacred Games" surely gave the talent in the room something to work with. For starters, there's the India factor. If Chandra's name, his obvious foreignness, might on the face of it be a liability -- "world literature" is a notorious kiss-of-death category -- that can turn around smartly if there is a larger trend or momentum. India is such a trend, no question. It all began with l'affaire and le succès Rushdie, the buzz around "The Satanic Verses" and the fatwa. Jhumpa Lahiri's 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Interpreter of Maladies" helped, as have conspicuous literary and crossover successes by writers like Rohinton Mistry (his "A Fine Balance," itself substantial, was an Oprah pick), Amit Chaudhuri, Akhil Sharma, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, and the aforementioned Vikram Seth, to name just a few. What savvy editor doesn't recall the Latin American boom in the 1970s, when talents like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Isabel Allende captured the public imagination?

...But at this point I became aware of a growing unease, a purloined letter feeling -- as if I'd all along been looking past the most obvious thing. I mean, what if Chandra has in fact written an irresistibly great book or even just a respectably good one? Why was I so keen on thinking angles? So that I could stay safe in my cynical marketplace analysis, my reflex assumption that people don't read much or ambitiously -- or that anything packaged this way could be taken seriously?

Am glad that Birkerts allowed for a certain uncertainty to creep into his judgment about the "exotic" angle in Indian fiction. There was this movie - Kamasutra made by Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair, which could be accused of selling exotica to the West. Her next movie - Monsoon Wedding was much closer to reality, showcasing a very real slice of Punjabi gaiety. Chandra's book, which I am reviewing for Philadelphia Inquirer, is seriously close to events concerning the Bombay underworld as we in India come across. So it's a mixed bag, a lot of new fiction and cinema capturing India without bothering with the snake charmers and Taj Mahal, which this country has quite moved beyond.

I'd agree on the length though; Chandra could have easily chopped 150 pages.