Jeet Thayil's luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. This is a book about drugs, sex, death, perversion, addiction, love, and god, and has more in common in its subject matter with the work of William S. Burroughs or Baudelaire than with the subcontinent's familiar literary lights. Above all, it is a fantastical portrait of a beautiful and damned generation in a nation about to sell its soul. Written in Thayil's poetic and affecting prose, Narcopolis charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis.
Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city's underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works in and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.
Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and the city's underbelly has become ever rawer. Those in their circle still use sex for their primary release and recreation, but the violence of the city on the nod and its purveyors have moved from the fringes to the center of their lives. Yet Dimple, despite the bleakness of her surroundings, continues to search for beauty - at the movies, in pulp magazines, at church, and in a new burka-wearing identity.
After a long absence, the narrator returns in 2004 to find a very different Bombay. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed.
In this opiate-veiled book, Thayil introduces readers to the seedy underbelly of Bombay. It begins in the 1970's and transitions with surreality into modern-day Mumbai--which has lost not only its tradition and identity, but also it's name. The story follows several memorable characters, all of whom fight addiction in one form or another. Addictions range from opiates to violence to sex to adulation. The most memorable character IMO is Dimple, a pipe-wallah, a prostitute, and an addict. Dimple's character is rather horrifying to the unjaded Westerner because she was abandoned by her mother and sold into prostitution as a child. At the age of 9, she was castrated and her penis was removed, which apparently makes her into a deliciously seedy prostitute (in the eyes of creepy men who make me shudder). When we are introduced to her, she is a little older, and is suffering some of the ill affects of her surgery--including addiction to opium, which was originally given to her as a narcotic for her pain. We watch Dimple as she changes from a beautiful young woman to a sickly and shriveled middle-aged woman.
Perhaps I'm reading too much in to the story (I think it would be clearer after a second reading, which it's not going to get), but I think Dimple was meant to represent India. When we met Dimple, she was young and beautiful, as was the young India. She had been docked and gelded, yes, but she was beautiful, intelligent, and had potential if ONLY she could get out of her rut. Perhaps this is meant to imply that the Westerners had "docked and gelded" India (by their colonization and then partitioning of the land), but that she still had potential. She was still beautiful. But time passed, and the slow-and-easy opium life in the "best opium den in Bombay...maybe even India," was forcibly supplanted by frightening hallucinatory "cheap" chemical-laced heroin. During this time, Dimple became increasingly sick. Likewise, India itself was getting sicker from the negative influences of modernization. As time passed, Dimple's name changed, as did Bombay's, and their identities were lost in the harsh new world.
This book was allegorically very deep, and I'm sure that a second, third, and fourth reading would teach me something new every time. But, unfortunately, once was enough for me. I don't regret reading the book...it will stay with me forever. But the violence, sex, drugs, and sickening human condition described was enough for me the first time around. Don't get me wrong, all of these negative issues were handled with graceful tact. But it was still difficult for me to read.
Now, a note on the narration: I imagine this book was a very difficult one to read aloud. Robertson chose to represent surreal quality behind the veil with an airy tone of detachment. This detachment makes the narration less-than-enticing. However, this is not the narrator's fault, but an issue with the book itself. I think a tone of detachment was probably quite appropriate in this situation. Just be warned...if you're picky about narrations, then this book may be better read silently. On the other hand, if you're reasonably tolerant, like I am, then you should be able to delve into the story with no problems. Robertson's tone of detachment didn't distract from the story, once I got used to it and understood the purpose. I was happily able to engross myself in the flow. AND a nice? thing about the audiobook is that I apparently missed a 6-paged sentence. I didn't even notice it.
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This is one of the most amazing books I've heard or read. It has raw stories of suffering that moved me from deep within, and as portraits of addiction, or self-questioning, or the corrosion that comes from caste and class enforcement these stories are true to life. What makes the book so special is that it swirls these stories into one another, like the half-dreamed conversations of the opium-smokers it depicts. Where does narrator stop and character begin? Which stories are within other stories? Which snatches of verse are quoted song, and which are misremembered, or misrepresented? The novel gives you grit and dream at once. For an author this is a dangerous literary game to play: a novel like this could end up confused, or confusing, and lose the reader's attention, but Thayil pulls it off. The book is gripping, it is clear, and it is compassionate.
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