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Travel writer Theroux's fiction has absorbing plot

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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

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