By Indra Sinha
Simon & Schuster. 374 pp. $25
Indra Sinha's Animal's People, which recently won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book in the Europe and Asia region and was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, doles out a fair share of tragedy. Set in the slums of a re-imagined and re-named Bhopal, India, site of the deadly Union Carbide gas leak, the novel promises to level a damning indictment against corporate greed and indifference to human suffering. And so it does, and so it might have remained, righteous and dreary. But the book achieves much more than the predictable conjuring of sympathy, outrage or mute despair, and for this the reader has Animal to thank, the irrepressibly horny and uncannily resourceful narrator, whose spine, twisted as a result of that poisoned night, forces him to walk on all fours.
Burdened by the thought that he is less man than beast, he spends most of his days trying to subdue the troublesome animal in his shorts. "Sex was the one thing I could never forget, my second impossible wish. My first wish was to stand upright, but why did I want that if not because it led to the second?" So pressing are his urges that they vex him more than the fact that he's a hooked-back urchin always hunting for his next meal. "The curse of lust is back worse than ever," he says. "No peace the bastard lund now gives, constantly it begs."
So here, almost two decades after the industrial calamity that poisoned his city, Animal of the Gutter comes of age. While the survivors of that night endure each new day as if the killing gas dances about their nostrils still, our razor-tongued narrator lopes on all fours through the garbage-strewn streets, masturbates in trees, proclaims his love for Nisha -- also born of that defining tragedy -- and waxes poetic about his prodigious member. An oddly arresting balance of the tragic and the comic saves Animal from becoming little more than a hapless chump through which the author can display his pity and outrage. Our narrator, four-legged bugger that he is, will shape his own destiny, thank you very much, and happily pick your pocket to boot. "See, if you are going to con people and get away with it," he tells us, "you have to be able to vanish in a crowd."
And vanish into the crowd he does -- at the urging of a handsome zealot who's convinced that the new clinic in town, administered by an American doctor, is nothing more than a nefarious attempt to gather information on the people poisoned so long ago. In response, Animal sneaks around town gathering information of his own. From here Sinha expertly gallops his ingenious boy creature through a series of spyings and eaves-droppings that cleverly lead us to the night that serves as a bookend to the original tragedy two decades before.
On this night -- experienced in a fevered hallucination -- Animal retreats to the jungle to live as the beast he believes himself to be and to sweat through the re-birth that satisfies the novel's thematic interests. But Sinha's decision to remove the narrator from the resolution of events he's reported on for the previous 350-odd pages is a misstep. Animal emerges from his jungle stint only to find the story has largely played out. He's missed all the juicy bits, and so has the reader. What follows is a perfunctory wrapping up. Yet this flaw does not long detract from the novel's serious intent and ribald telling. The right writer has met the right tragedy.
-- Dennis Bock is the author of "The Ash Garden" and "The Communist's Daughter."