Sun, Nov 08, 2009 - Page 14 News List

Hardcover: UK: Clueless in Calcutta

Paul Theroux returns to familiar themes in ‘A Dead Hand,’ his latest book to paint India in an unflattering light

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

All in all, there’s something structurally awry here. Was the novel initially plotted rather differently, then completed with the undigested material insufficiently changed? Probably not, considering Theroux’s general professionalism. But haste does seem to be a part of the problem, together with a determination to push ahead with unmalleable material come what may.

Many of the utterances of the narrator, and of his friend at the US consulate, appear to incorporate Theroux’s own caustic views on India with little adjustment. As if this wasn’t enough, the real-life Paul Theroux himself appears as a character. “Paul Theroux wants to see you,” says the consulate friend. “He’s in Calcutta.”

This is a smart move on Theroux’s part, possibly the only one in the novel. Of course there’s only one way the famous writer can be presented, and that’s hostilely. He could hardly be shown as a great man uttering witticisms and beaming bonhomie. So he’s mocked. He’s considered by the narrator to be a “smirking, intrusive, ungenerous and insincere man,” with “the heartless and unblinking gaze of a hunter lining up a prey animal through a gun sight.” He’s seen as smug, someone on the make, competitive and inquisitive. The narrator is enormously relieved when he leaves town.

What’s Theroux up to here? Maybe he’s exorcising the version of himself he sees in nightmares. There’s little doubt that the narrator, too, is Theroux in all but name, so the “real” Paul Theroux who shows up, briefly but memorably, can only be the “other self” who the author wants to identify accurately in order to, in some sense, be rid of.

Of course there are enjoyable things in this book. Theroux may be cutting, but he’s also deeply perceptive — a man who penned some of the best criticism of Salvador Dali in existence when visiting the surrealist’s home in The Pillars of Hercules could hardly be otherwise. If this book were written by someone else it might deserve muted praise. It’s only in comparison with Theroux’s best work that it’s more than a little disappointing.

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