Friday 12 August 2016

The Devourers

(July 2016)

Early (well, more like halfway through) contender for book of the year. There is so much going on here, so once I’ve given due prominence to the utterly raw and visceral nature of book as a whole, I’m going to retreat into a bit of philosophising while I try to get the rest of my thoughts in order.

It has been a while. The days when the three of us courted on hunts, each to each. Rare are the days now when we drag the carcasses of man and women in scented trails through desert and forest, through snow and mountain rock, bringing one or both companions to frenzy.

As more the more introspective and/or pretentious members of the authorial fraternity are fond of mentioning, stories are built on other stories. Werewolves are one of humankind’s oldest; the beast within and all that. It’s astonishing difficult to find a new angle on such a well-worn trope, not least because any modern tale of lycanthropy in this postwhatever age must pay due homage to those which have gone before. There’s a weight of metatextual baggage here that is agonisingly difficult to bear, quite before we get to any more quotidian concerns about character or plot. For the most part Das carries this load brilliantly, using it as further ballast in maintaining the book’s onward inertia.

The elevator pitch was clearly ‘A Scandinavian Werewolf in Kolkata’ so if you’ve any sense that’s your interest piqued straight off the bat. It’s also hard not to make (slightly lazy, if not inaccurate) comparisons with Midnight’s Children, and, indeed, early period Duran Duran*. An American Werewolf in London gets explicitly referenced in the text, as does Heart of Darkness, and this latter pays homage not just to the structural devices Das employs, but also, I think, the way in which one of the many metaphorical tenors brought within the remit of the shape-shifter vehicle is colonialism. As the title suggests, this book is not only concerned with transformation, but with consumption, aggressive consumption. Devouring.

The book opens in present day Kolkata. In the first paragraph our narrator, a lonely, slightly adrift academic, informs us:

…I met a man who told me he was half werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different from being half Bengali, half Punjabi, Half Parsi.

Alok finds himself falling under this nameless being’s spell, and their interactions form the frame narrative. The “stranger” commissions him to type up two manuscripts, pieces which (along with Alok’s academic asides) form the majority of the book. The first was written by Fenrir, a European shapeshifter driven from Europe by the rise of secularism in the 17th century. In the company of his pack he migrates to Mumtazabad in the Mughal Empire, during the construction of the Taj Mahal. It’s clear that ‘werewolf’ is just one designation given to these shapeshifters, known by various names in various locations: keveldulf, loup-garou, djinn, rakshasa.

The key twist here is that, when these monsters devour their prey, they also absorb some of their memories and knowledge, and so it is that when he meets Cyrah, the narrator of the second embedded story, she is startled by his flawless Pashto. Fenrir has become obsessed with creating life, not just consuming it, and so he rapes Cyrah in what he thinks is an act of love, before being ostracised by his packmates and fleeing. Cyrah’s narrative consists of her, in tandem with one of Fenrir’s former lovers, tracking him across what is now northern India. The final act rounds out the frame narrative, as Alok and the stranger venture into the Sundarbans, where apparently a pack of rakshasa may still exist.

The writing is remarkable. The voices of his three narrators are captured perfectly; each distinct and their own, even if it’s inevitably Fenrir’s which sticks in the mind the most. There’s a primal funk hanging over everything though, a kind of literary synaesthesia wherein all the bodily emissions and effluvia lashed across the pages takes on an almost tangible odour. This book stinks, in the best possible way. Transformation is, after all, a messy business, consuming the old, (re)birthing the new, be that birth individual or communal, national or cultural. Das works his metaphors as mercilessly as his two subordinate narrators pursue their prey, wringing them dry of every last drop of blood, shit, and spunk they contain. And this, I think, is the only part of the book that doesn’t quite hit the mark, as, in amongst all the other liminal states explored we get at the last a fleeting mention of transgender(ism?). Unfortunately this felt a bit like that the end of Boy, Snow, Bird: thematically congruent, and arguably thematically central, with the rest of the work, certainly, but also a little tacked on, a little lost in amongst all else that is happening. And there is a lot else happening. You almost wonder if a little less ambition, a little more focus, might have improved things even more.

Still, rather too much ambition than too little. Overall, The Devourers is an exceptional book, and one that will stay with you long after you turn the final page. Highly recommended.

*Worth noting though that this video was actually shot in Sri Lanka. Also interesting to look at with regards to the difference between critiquing problematic tropes and perpetuating them. Wikipedia tells me this won the Grammy for best video in 1984.

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