2012 Book 146: Narcopolis
Written by Jeet Thayil, Narrated by Dean Robertson
Reason for Reading: In preparation of the Booker Prize announcement on Tuesday
In this opiate-veiled book, Thayil introduces readers to the seedy underbelly of Bombay. It begins in the 1970's and transitions with surreality into modern-day Mumbai--which has lost not only its tradition and identity, but also it's name. The story follows several memorable characters, all of whom fight addiction in one form or another. Addictions range from opiates to violence to sex to adulation. The most memorable character IMO is Dimple, a pipe-wallah, a prostitute, and an addict. Dimple's character is rather horrifying to the unjaded Westerner because she was abandoned by her mother and sold into prostitution as a child. At the age of 9, she was castrated and her penis was removed, which apparently makes her into a deliciously seedy prostitute (in the eyes of creepy men who make me shudder). When we are introduced to her, she is a little older, and is suffering some of the ill affects of her surgery--including addiction to opium, which was originally given to her as a narcotic for her pain. We watch Dimple as she changes from a beautiful young woman to a sickly and shriveled middle-aged woman.
Perhaps I'm reading too much in to the story (I think it would be clearer after a second reading, which it's not going to get), but I think Dimple was meant to represent India. When we met Dimple, she was young and beautiful, as was the young India. She had been docked and gelded, yes, but she was beautiful, intelligent, and had potential if ONLY she could get out of her rut. Perhaps this is meant to imply that the Westerners had "docked and gelded" India (by their colonization and then partitioning of the land), but that she still had potential. She was still beautiful. But time passed, and the slow-and-easy opium life in the "best opium den in Bombay...maybe even India," was forcibly supplanted by frightening hallucinatory "cheap" chemical-laced heroin. During this time, Dimple became increasingly sick. Likewise, India itself was getting sicker from the negative influences of modernization. As time passed, Dimple's name changed, as did Bombay's, and their identities were lost in the harsh new world.
This book was allegorically very deep, and I'm sure that a second, third, and fourth reading would teach me something new every time. But, unfortunately, once was enough for me. I don't regret reading the book...it will stay with me forever. But the violence, sex, drugs, and sickening human condition described was enough for me the first time around. Don't get me wrong, all of these negative issues were handled with graceful tact. But it was still difficult for me to read.
Now, a note on the narration: I imagine this book was a very difficult one to read aloud. Robertson chose to represent surreal quality behind the veil with an airy tone of detachment. This detachment makes the narration less-than-enticing. However, this is not the narrator's fault, but an issue with the book itself. I think a tone of detachment was probably quite appropriate in this situation. Just be warned...if you're picky about narrations, then this book may be better read silently. :) On the other hand, if you're reasonably tolerant, like I am, then you should be able to delve into the story with no problems. Robertson's tone of detachment didn't distract from the story, once I got used to it and understood the purpose. I was happily able to engross myself in the flow. AND a nice? thing about the audiobook is that I apparently missed a 6-paged sentence. I didn't even notice it. ;)