‘Narcopolis,’ Jeet Thayil
This was one of my two choices to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. Naturally, it didn’t win, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.
The novel is divided into four parts, three of which tell the tale of Dom and his life in the drugs underworld of Bombay/Mumbai, and the town’s slide from opium addiction to heroin over the decades. However, Thayil likes to play with voices: sometimes Dom himself is guiding us through the underworld, sometimes it is one of the other protagonists, but after a while it becomes simply an omniscient narrator, a shifting of perspective which can often be confusing and distracting, perhaps fitting form to content.
What separates ‘Narcopolis‘ from being simply drug chic is the breadth of the narrative: the third section focuses on the life of Mumbai resident Mr.Lee, and the dangers of his upbringing in Communist China which eventually led to his escape to India. I found the historical claustrophobia of this section an excellent counterbalance to the haze of the first chapter, and felt a little let-down by the disjointed and disappointing final chapter, once again possibly mimicking the decline of the city from opium to the harder heroin.
I would have been surprised had this been selected as the best English book produced in the Commonwealth this year, but what I really enjoyed about it was Thayil’s rich and rambling wordplay: the tone is set by the prologue, merely six pages long but a single, rambling sentence not for the feint of heart, and below are a selection of examples:
“‘The founder of Christianity was the eponymous Christ, Jesus…'”
“They were all eyes, as if their faces had caved in around their mouths…”
Protaganist Mr. Lee’s Chinese Communist Mother’s view on culture, (and yet another potential subtitle for this entire blog):
“She didn’t believe in culture. She didn’t believe in books. She didn’t believe in knowledge that did not benefit society as a whole. She believed that indiscriminate individual reading was detrimental to progress because it filled the populace with yearnings that were impossible to identify, much less satisfy…”
Again, since reading David Bellos’ treatise on translation, I have been seeing examples of the decisions authors have to make on this topic everywhere. In a novel set predominantly in India, there is local lingo scattered throughout, but also the full monty from time to time, such as the following passage:
“Chandulis and charasis were like cockroaches, he said, they would survive anything, including the end of the world. He quoted a Punjabi poem or proverb or limerick:
Charasi, khadi na marsi.
Gar marsi, tho chaalis admi agay karsi…”
Nope, me neither.