Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Travel writer Theroux's fiction has absorbing plot

  • Print

A Dead Hand

A Crime in Calcutta

By Paul Theroux

McClelland & Stewart, 265 pages, $30

PROLIFIC American writer Paul Theroux alternates travel books with works of fiction, often composing the first draft of a novel -- longhand -- on a train between one exotic destination and the next.

His fiction can be as evocative of foreign places and their inhabitants as his non-fiction. This latest novel is no exception, and it has the added dimension of an absorbing plot.

Here's a Calcutta street scene: "Her slightly bloodstained white sari billowed as she swept through the Kalighat bazaar, past the beggars and the flower sellers and the fruit stalls, the beseeching holy men, the clattering rickshaws, the beeping motorbikes. From the sounds alone you knew you were in another century -- bicycle bells, the clop of pony hooves on cobblestones, the chatter of a sewing machine, the clang of a hammer on an anvil, the bang and bump of wooden wagon wheels."

As to the plot: Main protagonist and first-person narrator Jerry Delfont is an aging writer of travel articles (not books).

He has been invited to Calcutta through the U.S. consulate to give lectures, something he's agreed to do now that he's experiencing writer's block -- what he metaphorically calls "a dead hand."

The lectures behind him, Delfont is about to move on when he receives a letter at his Calcutta hotel from a woman named Merrill Unger, called Ma by the locals.

She claims to be an admirer of his work and seeks his help in getting her son's friend Ragat out of trouble.

Delfont soon becomes an admirer of Mrs. Unger, a beautiful and wealthy transplanted American whose sole purpose in life seems to be rescuing Indian children from poverty.

As well, she's an expert in giving tantric massage, and she seems to know that the quickest way to Delfont's heart is through his weary muscles.

Theroux has shown before (in novels like The Black House) how skilled he is at describing sensuality, and in this latest he makes it easy to understand why Delfont succumbs to Ma, ready to do whatever she wants.

Just when it looks as if he's forgotten the original problem -- Ragat's finding a body in his hotel room and leaving without telling anyone -- a package is delivered to Delfont containing a severed human hand.

When not advancing the plot, Theroux indulges his playful side (seen in previous novels like My Other Life). About half way through A Dead Hand, the U. S. consul invites Delfont to meet the travel book writer Paul Theroux.

At one point, Delfont says about Theroux, "This smirking, intrusive, ungenerous and insincere man was jumping to conclusions about me, making up his mind and forming fatal errors out of his impatience and knowingness."

Is Mrs. Unger really as altruistic as the love-smitten travel writer supposes? A Dead Hand is definitely worth reading to find out.

Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson took a train to meet Paul Theroux in 2000.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2009 H7

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


WRHA's response to boil-water advisory - Wednesday 4 p.m.

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project. Baby peregrine falcons. 21 days old. Three baby falcons. Born on ledge on roof of Radisson hotel on Portage Avenue. Project Coordinator Tracy Maconachie said that these are third generation falcons to call the hotel home. Maconachie banded the legs of the birds for future identification as seen on this adult bird swooping just metres above. June 16, 2004.
  • Young goslings are growing up quickly near Cresent Lake in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba- See Bryksa 30 Day goose project- Day 11- May 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Who are you rooting for in the Super Bowl?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google