"Cities should be examined like countries," writes Suketa Mehta. "Each has a city culture, as countries possess a national culture." Residents of a city act out its mores, its culture, its ideas -- often more than they do their own. The authors of four new paperbacks, including Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Vintage, $16), find whole worlds in a single city.
When Suketa Mehta was a teenager, unhappily transplanted to Queens, he "reapproximated" his hometown of Bombay by roaming the streets with two other exiled friends, singing songs from Hindi movies. But when he returns to Bombay, as an NRI or nonresident Indian, to write this book the city does not want him. It is "hostile to outsiders or nostalgia-stuck returnees. . . . groaning under the pressure of the 1 million people per square mile. It doesn't want me any more than the destitute migrant from Bihar, but it can't kick either of us out. So it makes life uncomfortable for us." But Mehta is determined to make sense of this place that looms so large in his mind after 20 years of exile. He ventures into all the dark corners of the metropolis -- the slums teeming with desperate village migrants, the underworld full of criminals and violent nationalists, and even the fantastical world of Bollywood. And he recounts the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of making a home in Bombay. So what draws people to live in this inhospitable city? As Bal Thackeray, an extremist Hindu politician who controls large swathes of Bombay, explains: "Here crime has good scope," he says. "You can earn without doing anything."
The setting of Uzma Aslam Khan's novel Trespassing (Picador, $14) is across India's contentious border with Pakistan, in Karachi. An American-educated Pakistani student returns home for his father's funeral and quickly falls into a clandestine love affair with the independent heiress of a silk farm. Their affair shatters the tentative peace of their two families. Multiple narrators tell this rich tale of anxiety in Karachi during the first Gulf War: The boy from the fishing village marvels at the buses "decorated as lavishly as boats for the annual fair at his village"; the student notices that the roads that are key to the Prime Minister's development scheme "lay clawed and abandoned like old meat."
In Chico Buarque's novel Budapest (Grove, $13), a ghostwriter on his way home to Rio de Janeiro from an "anonymous writers" conference in Melbourne is delayed in Budapest. In the short night that he spends in the city, he becomes captivated by the language, "the only tongue in the world that the devil respects." Years later, he discovers he's been speaking Hungarian in his sleep and leaves his wife and child for the city on the Danube. Although the ghostwriter, whose name is Jose Costa, has learned that "to know a city it is better to shut yourself away in a room within it than ride around it in a double-decker bus," on his first night there, after carousing at a bar called, in English, The Arsehole, he finds himself playing Russian roulette with a gypsy and his underage moll. Later, in a bookstore, a woman on skates tells him, in Hungarian, that "one does not learn the Magyar language from books." He understands her perfectly, and you can guess what happens next: Jose is soon going by the name of Zsoze Kosta and losing himself in Budapest. The first sentence of this dreamlike novel is "It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language." Buarque, one of Brazil's most revered pop stars, clearly believes this to be true and that trying one's luck in language means trying one's luck in love and in everything else that is truly important.
"Let me tell you what the city means to me." With this simple sentence, Nicholas, the first narrator of Jeff VanderMeer's futuristic novel, Veniss Underground (Bantam Spectra, $14), begins his story. "The city is sharp," he says. "The city is a cliche performed with cardboard and painted sparkly colors to disguise the empty center." It's a city with a collapsing government and a vast multi-level underground, much of it devoted to "living art," art based on the genetic manipulation of living things. Nicholas, a failed artist whose works and tools have just been stolen, disappears underground to work for the Mengelian Quin, whose specialty is "things with too many eyes, things with too many limbs, things with too many teeth, things with too many things." Nicola, Nicholas's twin sister, ventures below to search for him, but falls victim to Quin. Her mysterious ex-lover, a former denizen of the underground, sets out to rescue her, descending into a hellish, almost mythical, horror. Throughout this short novel (published here with three short stories and a novella all set in Veniss), the city seethes with ravenous menace.
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea