Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 23, 2007


By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin. 274 pp. $25

Paul Theroux is something of a throwback. In an era when so many novelists jump up and down with tricks, verbal antics, shock and razzle-dazzle, all the while shouting -- like Baby Roo -- "Look at me, look at me," Theroux just gets on with telling a compelling story, with the smoothness of a confident professional. The Elephanta Suite is his 27th work of fiction. The man knows his business.

Yet almost none of his novels or short story collections is widely known, with the partial exception of The Mosquito Coast and Half Moon Street (both made into films). People mainly think of Paul Theroux as a travel writer, the man who gave us the larky, sometimes scathing and bitterly comic bestseller The Great Railway Bazaar. Over the years since then, he's turned out many similar books, some of them marred by his slightly sour personality. In more ways than one, he's the Somerset Maugham of our time.

That's meant as a compliment. Maugham was comparably disdained by critics as just an entertainer, a marketer of commercial fiction and travel journalism. Yet he wrote clearly and powerfully, and once he started telling a story, it was nearly impossible to stop turning the pages. Many of his best works were set in "the East" and described Westerners going to seed, or searching for mystical transcendence, or being tempted to crimes of passion, including murder. The debilitating heat and the lushness of the vegetation released the suppressed desires of the straitlaced, while the exotic ways of the indigenous people called into question the manners and morals of the now distant homeland. That once forbidden, even unnatural love affair -- with the too young native girl or boy, or with the consul's bored wife -- might suddenly seem little more than a peccadillo, a way to pass the long, humid evenings underneath the slowly turning ceiling fan. Abroad, Maugham revealed, any of us could shuck his identity and become someone else.

The Elephanta Suite, a trio of novellas, expertly updates many of these classic themes but grounds them in the realities of modern-day India. In "Monkey Hill," a rich American businessman and his wife spend more and more time at a luxurious spa an hour from Mumbai. There they are served by desperately poor young people who are willing to do almost anything to better their lives or earn a little money. Meanwhile in the nearby village, Muslim-Hindu conflict is gradually intensifying.

In "The Gateway of India," a burned-out lawyer from Massachusetts, newly divorced and afraid to eat the local food or even leave his hotel room, engineers outsourcing deals for roof tiles, gaskets and power tools. One afternoon, he finally goes for a walk and experiences a revelation that will take him into sexual depravity and beyond.

In "The Elephant God," a young woman, just out of college, immerses herself in India, eventually joining an ashram, then teaching slang and American pronunciation to the Indians working the service phones for U.S. manufacturing companies. She also starts visiting a chained-up elephant with whom she feels an increasingly strong spiritual bond. Then something horrible happens.

All three novellas are tenuously connected. Not only by their themes -- Americans in India; the temptations of sex, mysticism or both; unexpected consequences -- but also because the main characters all stay, if only briefly, in the Elephanta Suite of a luxurious Mumbai hotel. What's more, the businessman of the first story is mentioned in the second, and a young woman glimpsed in the second becomes the main character of the third. That said, nothing much is done with this interlacing. It even seems a little cutesy.

But Theroux's India isn't cutesy at all. In "Monkey Hill," Audie and his wife Beth are driven to their spa from the airport, passing through "the populous and chaotic India they'd been warned about, the India that made you sick and fearful and impatient." Audie recalls the drive as "a long panning shot, the sort you'd get in a documentary with a jumping camera, the very first image a woman with no hands, begging at a stoplight just outside the airport, raising her stumps to Audie's window ('Don't look, honey'), then the overloaded lopsided trucks. . . the ox carts piled high with bulging sacks sharing the road with crammed buses painted blue and red, the sight of women slapping clothes on boulders in a dirty stream ('Laundering,' the driver said), others threshing grain on mats. Wooden scaffolding on brick buildings that already looked like ruins, whitewashed temples, mosques with minarets like pencils, gated houses, hovels, the lean-tos and tents of squatters. . . . Every few miles huge billboards showing movie posters of bug-eyed fatties in tight clothes."

In "The Gateway of India," Dwight Huntsinger recognizes that in India "something within him had been liberated and released, perhaps something as simple as his fear." "You said, 'Poor guy, so far away in that awful place,' never guessing that he was someone you didn't know at all, a happy person in a distant place that allowed him to be himself -- girls saying Whatever you want, sir and What you like? or the most powerful word in the language of desire, Yes." And yet this story veers away from mere sexual exploitation: Huntsinger gradually learns that India has also released him from something even deeper, from his very identity. Readers who know Thomas M. Disch's tour-de-force of human metamorphosis, "The Asian Shore" -- about an American ensorcelled by Istanbul -- will glimpse its analogue in "The Gateway of India."

In the last story, "The Elephant God," Alice arrives in Mumbai, a knapsack on her back, expecting to find the world of Merchant Ivory films, the world of the Indian fiction she'd read in college. She is soon disillusioned. "Where were the big fruitful families from these novels? Where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men? They seemed concocted to her now, and besieged in up-close India, all she thought of was Hieronymus Bosch, turtle-faced crones, stumpy men, deformed children."

But she persists and discovers that India will, alas, still surprise her. By its end, "The Elephant God," like "Monkey Hill," gains something of the grimness of Paul Bowles's early tales of American-Arab encounters: Close intercourse with the native people invariably leads to disaster.

It should be clear by now that Theroux isn't likely to bring many new tourists to the subcontinent. But these novellas of hunger -- physical and spiritual -- only make sense in a country such as India, where such extremes meet constantly. In the ashram Alice encounters two young and pampered Indian women who grew up thinking that everyone had servants. They never fully realized that the people just outside their gated mansions, or glimpsed from their air-conditioned limousines, were starving.

Though Theroux repeats himself just a bit in the middle of "The Gateway of India," the thought-provoking novellas of The Elephanta Suite are otherwise beautifully paced, by turns moving, sexy and disturbing. You could finish one in an evening, which means that at least three evenings this fall would be very well spent. *

Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

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