Elevate Difference

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta

Here’s the thing about reading a book that’s set in the place you live: it obliges you to scrutinize the setting, the authenticity of the dialogue, and the accuracy of the story in a way you may not have done otherwise. This effect becomes magnified when the place in which you live is not the place you are from, and when your own situated existence in that un-rooted place resembles that of the author’s. Aside from one’s desire for realism and reflexivity in the story, the reading provides a way of sorting out or reinforcing one’s own position as possessing superior knowledge of, having become better acclimated to, or garnering more acceptance as a foreigner in that place. It is for these reasons that I urge you to take some aspect of my repugnance toward A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta with a grain of noon.

Paul Theroux’s seemingly self-aware writing of this noir-esque novel is navel gazing, thinly disguised. The narrator, Jerry Delfont, is loosely based on the author himself: a travel writer who has wound up in Calcutta with an acute case of writer’s block, or the double entrendred “dead hand.” Delfont receives a handwritten request from a wealthy American expat, the businesswoman cum philanthropist Merrill Unger, who is in need of his assistance to clear up a delicate matter involving her son’s friend (implied to be the son’s lover), Rajat, and the body of a dead boy. More mysterious than the mystery itself is the untidy explanation as to why exactly Mrs. Unger would call upon a travel writer to do a detective’s job, but this is giving too much inquiry to something so banal. There are far better things to take issue with here.

I don’t know Theroux’s history with the City of Joy, but he got several elements plainly wrong, like the timing of Durga Puja and monsoon, the turns of phrase in Banglafied English, and the ins-and-outs of Shakta philosophy, mythology, and tantric practice. Since it is pretty standard for Western authors to have a baseless preoccupation with the Oriental exotic, and so I was expecting these kinds of errors from the jump, even this wasn’t my primary source of disappointment. That came from the wretched writing (which becomes all the more wretched with Theroux’s attempts at the erotic) and the utterly predictable plot, whose saving grace could have been its setting, were it not for the obvious artifice of its description, its appearance a kitschy vehicle for an otherwise bland story.

A Dead Hand seems to be an exercise in giving mention to the things that amuse and repulse the handful of tourists who make their way to Calcutta, and from the looks of it, Theroux is quite taken with himself for producing such a book. (There is even a moment in the narrative where Delfont has a drink with the actual Theroux in what superficially comes across as self-deprecation, but is tinged with egoistic megalomania.) Unfortunately, he might be the only one so taken.

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, February 26th 2010

Kittye- Oh, absolutely! I really enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri's work, which is fiction (mostly short stories), though I wouldn't call it light b/c the themes are very deep, personal, and melancholy. But it's very readable, if that's what you mean by "light." Although there are problems w/ it, White Tiger by Adiga Avind is also a very well-written, humorous work of fiction. William Dalrymple is an amazing travel writer who has written quite a bit on India. I've read both The Age of Kali and his most recent book, Nine Lives. His work isn't fiction, but he does an excellent job writing engaging stories about his travels and people he meets while traveling that includes quite a bit of history and modern day context. Also, Kiran Desai (and her mother, Anita Desai), Shashi Deshpande, Bapsi Sidhwa, Shobha De, and Bharati Mukherjee write fiction wonderfully. And, of course, there is always the infamous Salman Rushdie. :)

Great review. Theroux has always seemed quite taken with himself (as well as being a sexist - he called Erica Jong "a mamouth pudenda" in the 70s.)

Can you suggest some light fiction set in modern India that is worth reading?