By Patrick Anderson
Monday, February 22, 2010; C02
A DEAD HAND
A Crime in Calcutta
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 279 pp. $26
I loved the first page of this book. An unnamed narrator in Calcutta tells us: "People talked grandly of the huge cities and the complexity, but India in its sprawl seemed to me less a country than a bloated village, a village of a billion, with village pieties, village pleasures, village peculiarities, and village crimes." The narrator says he has just received a letter written on "classy Indian handmade stationery, flecks of oatmeal in its weave and reddish threads like blood splatter." He goes on to say that Calcutta is a "city of deformities," that he is probably being watched and that, in his small hotel on an obscure side street, he is "in every sense buried alive."
Wow! In two paragraphs we are warned of undefined village crimes, reminded of blood splatter and deformities, and told that the narrator is not only being watched but is or may soon be buried alive. Paul Theroux is, of course, a celebrated travel writer as well as a novelist, and we have been given fair warning that strange, bloody, nefarious events will soon emerge on the crowded, often violent stage of modern Calcutta.
Our narrator is a small-time travel writer named Jerry Delfont. The letter he receives is from a mysterious American woman named Merrill Unger, who is 40-something, gorgeous, wealthy and the founder of an orphanage in Calcutta. She summons Delfont to tea, tells him how much she admires his writing and introduces her son and his friend. The friend, it seems, awoke one morning in a cheap hotel room and found a dead boy on the floor. Mrs. Unger wants Delfont to prove that her young friend did no wrong.
All this makes little sense, and in fact the murder mystery vanishes for long stretches of the novel. The real mystery is Mrs. Unger, with whom Delfont falls desperately in love: "I freely surrendered to her; I wanted to belong to her." He lusts for her, too, but that's not so simple. Mrs. Unger is a veritable priestess of tantric massage, which Delfont explains thusly: "Mrs. Unger's tantric massage was not a sexual act but rather the drawn-out promise of one, foreplay as an end, always trembling on the brink. This produced a tremulous ecstasy that I could compare only to a rapture of strangulation; I was suffocated in a delirious choking as she ran her magic fingers over me." Delfont is so entranced by the woman that he ignores neon-bright warning signs. Like her fondness for watching goats get their heads chopped off, or how, after a goat's demise, she walks around oblivious to blood splatters on the hem of her sari. The reader concludes that Delfont is a fool for love and that he is destined to see a darker side to the sexy philanthropist. Which, of course, he does.
I had mixed feelings about this strange love story -- at best, it offers a bizarre fascination -- but I had no reservations about Theroux's writing. His brief portraits are a delight; Mrs. Unger's son is "pale, beaky, floppy-haired, languid, his lopsided mouth set in a sneer." Calcutta and other Indian cities are brought brilliantly, blazingly to life. Here is Mrs. Unger in all her glory: "Her slightly bloodstained white sari billowed as she swept through the Kalighat bazaar, past the beggars and the flower sellers and the fruit stalls, the beseeching holy men, the clattering rickshaws, the beeping motorbikes."
No one could accuse Theroux of an excess of sentiment. His characters have quite unkind things to say about the British royal family ("They're lower middle class but with insane pretensions"), Mother Teresa ("I think she had no faith except in herself") and Indian intellectuals ("Their love of discussion was comic, especially in Calcutta, which was falling apart as all the Bengalis went on yakking, yakking, yakking"). But Theroux's most amusing jabs are aimed at himself. In one clever scene, the writer Paul Theroux turns up and insists on meeting Delfont, who is wildly jealous of him. Delfont bitterly points out Theroux's thinning hair, declares that his "twitching eyes were those of a predator" and complains that he "did nothing but pretend to write about himself, never quite coming clean, offering all these versions of himself until he disappeared into a thicket of half-truths he hoped was art." I am uninformed about Theroux's hair and eyes, but there is undeniable art in his vivid portrayal of an India that is beautiful, mysterious and often scary as hell.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.