‘What is a writer if he can’t write?’ – A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

Jerry Delfont prides himself on being a writer with a sentimental and unobstructed vision of how other people live. He is stranded in Calcutta in the weeks leading up to the monsoon, and as the city stagnates Jerry spends his time looking at the beauty and spirituality in the city’s poverty and decay.

Unfortunately, Jerry actually has a hopelessly romanticised attitude to most things, and is a writer desperately looking for a story, hoping to find something that will lift him out of his writer’s block. Jerry describes his inability to write as “a dead hand” and gratefully snatches at the opportunity when he is contacted by the exotically beautiful Mrs Unger. Mrs Unger is a wealthy philanthropist who once worked for Mother Teresa saving Calcutta’s orphans, and now she gives him renewed hope that through a relationship with her he can start to do something with his life.

Rajat, an Indian friend of Mrs Unger’s son, Charlie, has woken up in a cheap hotel to find the body of a dead child is lying on the floor of his room. Rajat panics and runs from the hotel. Mrs Unger, for no obvious reason, writes to Delfont, flattering his ego and intriguing him. When they meet she asks him to investigate. Delfont agrees, implausibly as the extent of his detective work extents to a few trips to the hotel and speaking to a forensic scientist (who strangely asks no awkward questions when Jerry gives him the hand of the dead child to test for DNA but cheerfully sets to the task and uncovers the answers to the mystery as easily as any scientist in TV’s CSI).

Paul Theroux has written 31 novels and 15 works of travel writing (several about India) so it is no surprise to find that Jerry, a travel writer for magazines who has never published a book, actually views himself as “not a travel writer but a travelling writer”, which could be a description of Theroux‘s approach to his own writing. It’s unfair to suspect that Jerry is a cipher for Theroux, though he is a mouthpiece for carefully crafted and closely observed meditations on the exoticism and ambiguity of India, because a character called Paul Theroux (a famous travel writer who wants background on Mrs Unger, without explaining why) is introduced halfway through the novel. A Dead Hand is full of perceptive and detailed descriptions of India, travelling on the railways, the Indian mind and even the nineteenth century quality of Indian speech patterns. Yet this is largely a travel book that uses a flimsy plot to pretend it is a novel.

The book’s only theme is to self-consciously and repeatedly ask, ’what is a writer if he can’t write?’. Jerry is looking for hope, for that he needs a story to inspire him. He wants to be rescued by Mrs Unger and when he is disillusioned in his obsessive love for her (when he discovers just why she rescues street children) he turns it into a novella (which the fictional writer entitles ‘A Dead Hand‘). As Jerry’s friend, Parvati, a poetry writing dancer, comments: “I’d rather live more and write less”.

This is excellent writing, but it lacks any reason for being a novel and though the description of Calcutta is lively and interesting, the characterisation of a middle-aged writer fearing ennui and loss of his talent is perceptive and deeply felt, it is driven by a lifetime’s craft that is more mechanical than inspired. Paul Theroux has written a novel describing a writer’s need to keep generating material for the next book. In that he has succeeded, he has definitely racked up another book.

Any Cop?: Paul Theroux can write a well-crafted, atmospheric and enjoyable novel, even with the absence of anything like a plot or any apparent motive for making this a novel.

James Doyle

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