Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Dimple was castrated before he was 10. In Bombay during the 70s she worked in a brothel, and got into drugs. She lived for 10 years downstairs from her drug-den boss and his family - she was his mistress. Life became more difficult when heroin took over from pipe-smoking ("This is the new thing, brown powder, garad heroin with the compliments of the Pakistani government", p.142), ("Garad, you know what it means in Urdu? Waste", p.199) and when Muslim/Hindu battles begin. Dimple switches religion, ending up Christian to go into Rehab. In the final section we jump forward years. Most of the main characters have gone.

There's a long interlude about the life of Mr Lee that I could have done without. On p.196 there are instructions on how a wife set on fire by her husband can get herself reincarnated as his next child. Monsoon scenes seem hallucinatory. There are lyric sections, serious sections, and several dreams. Quotable passages include -

  • Colour is a way of speaking, not seeing. Poets need colour, and musicians too. But painters shouldn't forget it. Colour, if you don't mind me saying, is a crutch, like the necessity of God. For some nineteenth-century European painters, the absence of God was as intolerable as the absence of colour. They used the entire spectrum for every negligible little thing (p.34)
  • Only the rich can afford surprise and or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is hunger and ghosts (p.39)

Other reviews

  • Kevin Rushby ( There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn't add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. ... Narcopolis is a blistering debut)
  • Salil Tripathi (The most striking section is in the middle, when Thayil introduces us to Lee, the elderly Chinese man who gives his pipes to Dimple)
  • Stuart Evers (Centred on Rashid’s squalid drug shack, this portmanteau novel picks up strands, weaves them with others, journeys to Mao’s China, only to drop us back, mesmerised, right where we began. ... The literature of drugs can be both wearisome and curiously smug: low-life glamour exulted with florid prose and cod-spiritual awakenings.)
  • thebookbag (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.)

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