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 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.
Narcopolis, the debut novel of poet Jeet Thayil, is a portrait of the changing face of drug addiction in Mumbai. It’s largely set in and around an opium den owned by Rashid, one of the book’s central characters, and follows the fates of the den’s regulars, including eunuch and prostitute Dimple, who prepares Rashid’s pipes. The book charts the characters lives through the changing drug habits: beginning with a rather idyllic portrait of the opium den as a fairly relaxed place and a not particularly dangerous habit, and tracing the changes that come about as the city is flooded with cheap, low-quality heroin. The downward spiral of the characters’ lives is mirrored by the chaos of the city, as it disintegrates into riots and murder.
This isn’t an easy book to read. Firstly, obviously because of the subject matter. This is a deeply unpleasant book: consider this a gigantic trigger warning for rape, child abuse, and other graphic violence. Secondly, Thayil’s prose is meandering, probably reflecting the opium haze that his characters spend their days in. The books starts with a prologue that is a single sentence that runs on for almost seven pages – thankfully, the rest of the book doesn’t continue like this! Although it is told at times in the first person, it isn’t clear until the end who this narrator actually is. The perspective regularly changes, and Thayil often starts new chapters or sections just referring to “he” or “she” without any names used to indicate which set of characters he is actually talking about, making it occasionally hard to follow – I found I was quite often skipping back pages to try to work out what was going on. The narrative jumps about in time as well, just to add to the overall disorientation! Fans of more traditional, linear narratives will probably find this frustrating, although I did feel it fitted with the subject matter.
I have to say I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this. It was just so bleak: I don’t mind difficult or controversial subject matter in books, but this felt really relentless. However, this is the Booker prize, which is supposed to be judged primarily on quality of writing rather than subject matter. On those terms, the book is an undeniable triumph. Thayil’s background as a poet really shows here, as he sketches an incredibly vivid portrait of this world using often quite sparse language. The dreamlike quality of the narrative occasionally makes it a bit hard to follow, but it does add to the atmosphere of the book. I would be interested to read any future books from this author, as despite not really enjoying the story I was very impressed with the writing.
So, a potential winner? Maybe. This doesn’t really feel like a typical Booker winner to me, but that really depends what the judges are after – they may want something a bit controversial and challenging this year, after what was perceived as quite a weak shortlist last year. I think this is a stronger candidate than The Garden of Evening Mists, but I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve read a few more off the shortlist!