on 26 August 2012
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, a Booker 2012 longlist nominee, is a portrait of drug addicts in Bombay. Omniscient narrator Dom describes a variety of characters encountered in Bombay's drug dens. Prostitute Dimple, Chinese refugee Mr Lee, drug dealer Rashid etc.
There are, without a doubt some absolute gems hidden within the prose of Narcopolis, a passage about the nature of doubt stood out for me, and the novel got off to a good start, but there is no plot as such; despite the quality of the prose I found myself disengaging from the novel and at a certain undefinable point it stopped being something I was reading, and became a chore I had to get through.
For readers unfamiliar with India, use of slang and cultural references, will sometimes create a barrier of understanding, or did for me at any rate. I suppose if I wanted to give it a catchy, easily understood summary I'd say "It's an Indian Trainspotting". Likewise did Trainspotting, with its use of local dialect create a comprehension barrier for the average reader.
Narcopolis is the 8th book on the longlist which I have now read, with the exception of Bring Up The Bodies which I read regardless of its presence on the list, at the time of publication, I have been pretty disappointed with this years list, plenty of "good" solid books like The Lighthouse say, but nothing which has transcended words on a page, and entered a part of my mind or heart.
Narcopolis begins and ends in Bombay. I suspect that, in the middle, Jeet Thayil had hoped to create a Bombay epic. It is probably not substantial enough to achieve that ambition, but is an interesting and quirky look at Indian life through an opium cloud.
The novel is bookended by the narration of an American dopehead, Dom Ullis, who first visits Rashid's opium den in the late 1970s or early 1980s - time is fairly unspecific - and returns some 20-30 years later. He is intrigued by some of the characters he meets, most intriguing of whom is Dimple, a woman who used to be a man. Dom's sections are not terribly lucid; they drift in and out of focus; they have psychobabble wittering; they have the detachment of a tourist who knows that he won't really be touched by anything he sees or does.
The more interesting sections are the central "meat" of the book. We uncover elements of Dimple's story and those she encounters. Hence we get the story of Mr Lee, a Chinese man who has fled the cultural revolution. We half discover how Dimple came to be castrated and ended up working in a brothel. We have the story of Rashid and Rumi and a host of other minor villains. As the stories converge on Rashid's den, they start to contradict as much as they overlap The lucidity with which we see Dimple's earlier life and Mr Lee' story of flight blurs into a smoky haze.
This could all have been a bit of a disaster were it not for the engaging brilliance of Dimple. She suffered abuse and humiliation, yet she plied her trade trade in brothels and drug dens with detached dignity. She intrigued both clients and employers alike. Yet for all the charisma, for all the victimhood, she is not quite angelic. She is willing to lie, cheat, steal and perhaps more to get what she wants. She seemed rather like a camel, serving others as they wish but only on her own terms.
The question of whether the novel really portrays India, or really portrays Bombay, is a moot point. There are plenty of mentions of religion - particularly the tensions between Muslims, Hindus and Christians - but there is no structure to this; no clear point is being made. We learn that religions and castes matter to Indians but don't get a clear sense in exactly what way. Many statements are left hanging. At various points Bombay is described as a city that is only inhabitable for two months a year but we never get a feel for how it is uninhabitable. We can guess that it is because of the heat and the smells; the disease and squalor and poverty - but we are never really shown. Moreover, the cast of Narcoplois is so small, and the situations so specialised that it is difficult to see whether or not they are representative of the whole. The only truly generic character seemed to be Dom, the everyman drug tourist, frittering away other people's wealth whilst pretending to find an inner soul. So, yes, there was homelessness, squalor and corruption, but only portrayed in close up; the camera never pulls back. Jeet Thayil can conjure strong images and has got some great turns of phrase, but his problem seems to be in knowing what to do with them. He lets the genie out of the bottle but doesn't have any wishes to be granted.
So, overall, it is an enjoyable read but falls well short of greatness. And for all Dom's grandiloquence in his final sentences, this is not the definitive novel of Bombay.
on 16 December 2012
A group of characters - loosely connected through their use of opium and later other variants of opium and Rashid's khana, in which it is smoked or injected or inhaled - has a range of experiences in 1980s Bombay. These range from the visit to Bombay of an artist who specialises in images of Christ, through to the live of the local gangsters and corrupt police, through ethnic conflict and general poverty. The final chapters of the book are a 30 years on return by the narrator who has been part of the scene, but not a central part. Much of the book concerns Dimple, who works for Rashid, and Mr Lee for several chapters, from whom she inherits an opium pipe which buys her original entry to Rashid's khan.
This is therefore not a tightly plotted novel - it has more the rewards of an interlocking set of short stories - memorable incident, some reflections on the meaning of life, and a very strong sense of time and place.
The opening chapter is an 8 page unparagraphed reflection by the narrator looking back on his own first experience of opium at Rashid's. If this does not immediately appeal, it is unlikely that the rest of the book will fare much better. On the whole, I enjoyed it and it will certainly linger in the memory.
In "Narcopolis", Jeet Thayil pulls off that tricky thing of writing about protagonists under narcotic influence surprisingly well for me, although it's fair to say that it won't be everyone's taste. It's not a book that the Bombay/Mumbai tourist office will be keen to promote. A cover quotation links the book to a similar vein (OK, that's a poor choice of words in the circumstances) to "Trainspotting" and that's not far from the mark.
Thayil opens the story in the 1970s in Rashid's opium house where his regulars, including the narrator, in Indian student named Dom, interact with Rashid and the memorable character of Dimple, a eunuch who expertly prepares the pipes. What, for me, makes this successful is that he slowly and gently takes the reader into the depths of the dream-like world they live in. On the surface of the book, it's very much about addiction, to narcotics but also to sex and alcohol, but at a deeper level it's also a using drugs as a huge metaphor for the changes in India over the period from the simplicity of opium, and the long-standing historical links between China and India, to the more damaging modern narcotics of heroin from Pakistan which has a more violent and damaging impact on its users. India remains a melting pot of religion, cultures and wealth throughout but Thayil is suggesting that it is the more modern influences that have made it more damaging and violent. When his narrator, Dom, returns in present day though, he is just as drawn in to the vice as he was in the 1970s, so perhaps little has changed.
Thayil does explore some of the inherent contradictions in Indian life but in many ways you get less of a flavour of India than with the older generation of Indian writers. There's more of a poetic style to the writing than the more traditional story-telling generation of the likes of say Rushdie and Mistry.
Story lines and characters drift into each other with surprisingly good results. The whole thing is like a dream - or more accurately a nightmare - and it's often hard to know where one part stops and another begins. For me some of the best bits are the descriptions of Dimple's life and her friendship with the old Chinese refugee Mr Lee.
This is very much a cast of drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, gangsters and pimps with the odd artist thrown in for good measure. For some it may lack a strong enough driving force but I think I just may be getting addicted to Thayil's poetic prose.
on 2 March 2013
I read this book whilst on a trip to India in Feb 2013, visiting West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya. Thayil's book is based entirely in Mumbai (with a sub-plot dealing with the Chinese origins of one character in the early days of the Communist Revolution), but much of what Thayil describes will be familiar to anyone who has visited any Indian city, if only superficially. The book is well-written with a pacy narrative and a very evocative style, as befits a poet like Thayil, but is not for the faint-hearted as it depicts a cast for whom no moral code seems to apply, and in which casual and often brutal violence, drug use, utter squalor, poverty, and the disposability of human life are quite normal. Some of the characters, such as the transgender prostitute and opium worker Dimple, are capable of generating some sympathy from the reader, but most are repulsive. Still, don't let that put you off. Four stars for the writing, but if I was judging it on the likeability of the characters, it would get two.
on 11 April 2013
I quite like picking up books which receive mixed reviews, and that was one of my reasons for reading this one.
It's nomination for awards was also a factor.
Sometimes a book is perhaps easier to understand if you feel some cultural or experiential link to the prose. The world of drug addiction and opium and the reality of Mumbai/Bombay is beyond my experiences, but the book did give me a feel for that, and certainly made me think.
It is though a little bit like an excited child, changing topics quickly and sometimes hard to follow.
Unlike some who seem to have preferred the start to the end, I felt the book actually got better as it went on, perhaps because initially I really didn't see what it was doing or aiming for. In the end it was quite a poignant ride, and although I've only rated it three stars, I would say it was worth a read - I'm glad I read it.
on 23 March 2013
Where to start... I had no real idea what this book was going to be about. I don't think that I have ever read a book based in India before, but i read this as it was the book chosen for my book club.
The main emotions stirred in me by this book were disgust and confusion. The book confronted many different themes including gender, sex, drug use, religion, marriage, prostitution, crime, plus many others. This was all set against the backdrop of 1970's Bombay. Unfamiliar with the history, and quite possibly the culture of Bombay and India in general, I found it quite difficult to follow the story (the language used, the types of places mentioned). I believe this could also have been due to the writing style, which I found to have both positive and negative aspects. It seemed that there wasn't any real, solid story to the book, more a series of situations and events that occurred, involving various combinations of characters in various locations. This was something I found difficult to follow, becoming unsure who was talking at different points in the book. However, the authors descriptions were evocative, and I certainly formed images in my mind of how I thought places and people looked.
There were some very graphic, and disturbing scenes in the book involving drug use, sex (both consensual and non-consensual, in heterosexual and homosexual situations), occurring separately, and together. It mingles religion/sex/drugs together very closely which could certainly prove problematic for some readers. I equate some of the scenes in this book with the kind of scenes that occur in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, graphic and difficult to read. Alot of these did not seem to have any real build up, or come-down, and were in some cases, just another thing that happened, told in quite a neutral tone.
I would say that it would be difficult to say I enjoyed this book, I found it difficult to become attached to the characters, or to feel empathy to many of them. It is quite possible that I missed the point of the book, as I realise that the book dealt with many difficult themes - however when the book ended, I was left unsatisfied, but not particularly wishing that the story would continue. Time shifts and character shifts made it difficult follow.
I did however enjoy reading it from the perspective that it was out of my comfort zone in terms of usual genres of books, and that despite the confusion I encountered (which could of course just be me being a bit thick!), the writer delivered many interesting thoughts, along side deep questions, interesting character conversations and vivid imagery, whilst also dealing with problematic themes.
I am unsure as of yet, whether it is a book I would recommend to others due to the nature of the content. Not for the faint hearted.
on 8 November 2012
This felt like quite hard going to read. The story is difficult to follow, and unless you are interested in long passages of writing representing altered states of consciousness, it's a difficult book to get in to. Really, I can't think of anything positive to say about this book - I did finish it because I kept thinking it would get better, but to no avail.
on 7 April 2013
This is a book about corruption. It reads like an opium dream with stories sliding over each other, a vivid and hungry language and occasional moments of stark lucidity. The effect is carefully deployed so that form meets function. It has a nostalgic feel and unfortunately deploys the old 'past is a better place' cliche. Like many books on addiction, its moralizing is hidden beneath sudden lurches into violence and a story involving a serial murderer feels somewhat forced in. The experience of this book, like the drug, is exciting, languid and poetic.
on 19 April 2014
Not quite Bombay's Trainspotting, but close. Thayil has Welsh's ear for dialect but makes poetry with an eye for beautiful juxtaposition. More Bolano than Begbie.
He also has a sly line in dark humour, ensuring the underbelly of drug addiction and slum life, the constant draw of hit and hypnotism, all work their magic on the reader.
Characterisation is a real strength, so that we hope Dimple is happy and care about Rashid. But most of all, we will our narrator to chase another kind of dragon.
This is a story of escape and redemption, but the strongest chord in this fabulously populated, gorgeously written novel, is one of regret.
Read it. Read it for the joy of language and sensory heady prose.
After that incredible one-sentence first chapter, you'll be hooked.