Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil The Penguin Press, New York, 2012. 288 pp. $25.95
A book review by Norman Douglas May 2012
When I read, I am looking for material relating to several hundred topics... In G.M. Young’s famous words, my aim is to go on reading till I can hear the people talking.
—Keith Thomas, from “The Magic of Keith Thomas” by Hilary Mantel (the introduction to Religion and the Decline and Fall of Magic by Keith Thomas, published June 2012 by the Folio Society)
Fifty-three year old author Jeet Thayil’s stirring debut novel, Narcopolis, begins, unfolds, and comes to rest in “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by surgically altering its face, [and] is the hero or heroin of this story...” A poet of some repute, Thayil calls the book’s prologue “Something for the Mouth,” a seven-page tornado that whirls out of a single sentence and starts to weave neither the mea culpa of a patriarch, nor the inculpation of a witness, but syllables that shift the reader directly into the narrator’s junkyard vernacular, English (not just a language but a combination more deadly than the Dutch East Indies Company, the biggest drug dealers of all time whose inconceivable wealth and brutality transformed seven malaria-plagued islands into India’s financial capital), a palaver ripe for pidgeon speech of all kinds, its pundits planted in the pageant of pipe dreams populating the pages to follow.
We read everywhere that Narcopolis is a novel about drugs and addiction, but these are the assessments of cops who moonlight as connoisseurs of culture. Like all the best literature, Narcopolis is about literature and language, about how writers—themselves spellbound, having fallen under the spell of other spell-casters who dumpster-dive the dictionary, retrieving a handful of forgotten names and acts and meanings—how writers answer a compulsion to spell out the storied magic of reality, a magic that drips from the tips of our tongues as well as our fingertips to be wrapped tight between well-appointed covers or a pair of pricked-up ears, like fresh fish in old newspaper, the stink of worldly knowledge sealed away from pesky flies and the heat of day and cooked up as so many stories; that is the project of Narcopolis, a fictitious name to obscure the forgotten name of a lost capital’s lowest cases. If Thayil is concerned with addiction, it’s his own irrepressible impulse to compel each word to dance with those all around it, each page a cacophonous rave of neo-primitive gyrations, the whirling of zephyrs and barren men through the cyclical time of two non-centuries intoxicated by the neglect of women and children first.
Abandoning his first-person narrator—Dom, a liquor and drug-abusing journalist deported from New York in the year of Orwell (that’s 1984)—Thayil assigns us a new guide, the docked and gelded hijra known as Dimple. She, in turn, will lead us to others, various clients of the Shuklaji Street rhana—or opium den—run by Rashid, whose son Jamal—a child at the start of the book—will grow up to assume the conservative sharia-based worldview that his more tolerant father never obeyed. As much as any character, Rashid’s rhana sets the main story’s arc, the camaraderie between the original pyali smokers, whether regulars or tourists, yields to the ravaging power of garad and Chemical, the low-grade and adulterated forms of heroin trafficked in via Pakistan (along with cocaine). Rejecting the business opportunity but embracing these new drugs, Rashid’s health eventually succumbs and his son closes the rhana. It’s here that Dom returns, not quite reformed, seeking Dimple, the hijra whose cross-gender strength and awareness is the story’s axis.
Newton Pinter Xavier, whose “art is Catholic guilt exploded to devastating effect” (from Thayil’s send-up of a Time magazine review), is the drunken painter who follows Dom to Rashid’s rhana, then falls for the transsexual Dimple—as do all the men in Narcopolis. The handful of spectators who attend Newton’s lecture at the Theosophy Center await his debauched antics more than his words, hoping to have a story they can share with friends not in attendance. When Dom tells Dimple not to recount the end of her night with Newton, the narration shifts away from Dom. Hereon, the story is told in a way that renders the reader Dimple’s voyeur, heightening the sense that one reads for the same kind of titillation sought by Xavier’s crowd; the author turns Narcopolis into a kind of guilty pleasure, an empire of vocabulary wrought with all the sensory surrealism of l’Histoire de l’oeil.
Through Dimple, we meet Mr. Lee, a self-exiled Chinese Party bureaucrat who flees the fickle hand of fate that fuels the mob hysterics of Mao’s revolution, destroying his parents and his lover. Establishing himself in Shuklaji Street as the only Chinese-operated rhana, Mr. Lee acts as a kind of tutor to Dimple, exchanging stories with her the way lovers might share blankets on a winter’s night. His death in the mid-90’s heralds the end of the old-styled rhana—and the bulldozing of Bombay—where Hindu, Christian, and Muslim live together with little more than personal differences, certainly not the riotous mayhem and murder that eats away the exhausted corpse of India’s forsaken socialist experiment, turning women into daily victims of crimes perpetrated by the defeated zombies who stagger freely about in place of the men who scarcely imagined such inhumanity during the halcyon daze of yesteryear and yore. The ancient pipe Mr. Lee bequeaths upon his demise to Dimple—and which she, in turn, gives to the pyaliwallah, Rashid—serves as the last trace of a once civil society whose new citizens stop at nothing to acquire what flimsy prizes they insist are theirs alone, a rabid culture of hidden doubts and explicit alienation bereft of histories, of anyone a sister might identify as father or husband, brother or men.
There are others: Rumi, once a chauffeur in Hollywood and Bollywood, who is sentenced to rehab after he comes to on top of a pimp who has overdosed. His succession of relapses culminates in a harrowing encounter with Soporo, founder of the rehab center, Safer, whose renown and saintly demeanor is pushed to the limit by Rumi’s garad-driven resurrection as suicidal sociopath.
But Narcopolis, like much of the world’s greatest literature, is not a story peopled with characters. Rather, it is a collection of recollections offered by a cast of disappearing narrators, a rogue’s gallery of vaguely unfamiliar types who emerge from the lower depths that engulf them and release them, the swirling fog of histories and accounts that seek the hidden in the moors, cobbled memoirs that push against bricked-up shadows,
through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment, I smoked a pipe and I was sick all day, hearing whispers in my stone sleep about the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, who worked the city at night, whispers that leaked upward from the poor, how he patrolled the working-class suburbs of Sion and Koliwada and killed them while they slept, approached those who slept alone, crept up to them in the night and killed them but no one noticed because the victims were more than poor, they were invisible entities without names or papers or families, and he killed them carefully, a half dozen murdered men and women, pavement people of the north central suburbs where the streets are bordered by the effluents and sludge and oily green shimmer, and all that year he was an underworld whisper, unknown to the city’s upper classes until he became a headline, and in my delusion I thought I understood his pity and terror, I thought I knew him as a Samaritan, a pure savior of the victims of a failed experiment, the Planned Socialist State of India, he was trying to end their misery, the Pathar Maar, he was on a mission to wipe out poverty, or so I thought, sunk in my own poverty in the back of the taxi, slumped against upholstery stained a Bombay shade of brown, telling the driver to slow down as we drove past the women, and I saw, I swear I did, the face of a maid who looked after me as a small child, a dark woman who smiled sweetly when I hit her, and I knew it was her, washed up in the dead-end district where the women were graded, were priced and displayed in every street and gully and house, women from the far north, from the south, from all over, bought new and used, sold or given away, bartered, almost free... (p. 2)
Who is the narrator of Narcopolis? Here’s the gumshoe angle that underpins the noir-ish atmosphere suffused throughout this memory palace of marginalia, this compendium of condom-free sex-crime stories cocked up to coax your already pie-eyed, freeze-dried and deep-fried mind ever-closer to the source of the weird chortling and chuckling that emanates incessant echoes from the fog of what has only and forever been just another well-armed ego engaged in mortal combat against the faithfully patient, ever-compassionate self: you drive the action back to where you started. In situating Thayil beside Burroughs and Bolano, Bukowski and the like, the critics recognize not the content, but the candor and the clarity that his exceedingly clever and cobbled-together manuscript demonstrates. The author of two volumes of poetry and the editor of two others, as well as the writer of a contemporary opera book, and member of a musical duo, Thayil is an adept of the rhythms that amplify English at its best. His fusion of oral and literary conventions makes him an heir of Joyce and the Beats, but he employs the added ammunition that comes from having trekked across the three continental capitals of the language: New York, London, Bombay—and Hong Kong, to boot. Just as Shakespeare orchestrated the oral stew that clamored in the streets of his day, Thayil has melded the noise of a language that persists in shifting daily from the lounge to library to recording to the streets and back again.
His Technicolor culprits are drawn to a self-styled auto-didact, a transsexual who suggests men and women can do no better than cohabit—real empathy is more likely with animals of the same gender—to Dimple, curious and hopeless, who treasures the refuge of books as surely as any writer. Among the texts recounted in Narcopolis are a mad professor’s textbook rants about Jesus as “among other things, an unlicensed medical practitioner who could cure the sick with nothing more than the touch of his right index finger,” innumerable magazines and journals, true crime weeklies, the writings of Mao, of Mr. Lee’s Party-persecuted father and his lauded rival, reincarnation manuals, screenplays, all reconstituted in extended excerpts devised by Thayil. Clearly, the author enjoys the kind of discoveries in antiquarian shops that cemented the relationship between Professor James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Dr. W.C. Minor, the insane American and murderer who contributed over 10,000 citations to the lexicon’s first edition.
If you’re looking for a book on drugs and redemption, this book fits the bill—though, in the end, rehab proves no remedy for the rite of passage known as Death. Of course, it’s not a memoir. It’s a fiction; a work of art that strives far beyond the wretched hand-wringing pap that sells these days to all who seek spectacle in lieu of experience. I can’t imagine it will be a best-seller, but it should attain cult status among the more lettered, literature-hungry audience out there. Its appearance may even herald an overdue reemergence of the kind of writing that thrust books like The Sound and the Fury and Song of Solomon into the canon of English letters. Like Faulkner’s study of emotional wreckage and Morrison’s homage thereof—as well as more niche-seated masterpieces like Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard and Okri’s Famished Road—Narcopolis is a testament to the unlimited potential of a language that has served its heroes—colonizers, slave-mongers and drug dealers—as well as its rebels—the race-mixers of The Subterraneans, the criss-crossed wraiths of Mr. Selby’s neighborhood, the suicidal bourgeois’ last ditch shot Under the Volcano. Narcopolis is a sweeping homage to the power of naming oneself and telling one’s history, even as that history sweeps such selves under the roar of an oncoming, unstoppable bus. More than some narrow rumination geared toward a market researched demographic, Narcopolis provided me with a surfeit of “material relating to several hundred topics... go on reading till [you] can hear the people talking.”