The Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux
The Elephanta Suite
McClelland & Stewart (Emblem), 2007
Softcover, 274 pages

A Sermon Does Not Good Fiction Make

 

The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas connected by a theme, a few recurring minor characters, and the hotel rooms of the title. All three stories concern the experiences of Americans encountering India for the first time. Their motives and situations vary, but they share a fundamental, and ultimately dangerous, lack of knowledge about the country they are visiting.

In the first novella Beth and Audie Blunden, a wealthy middle-aged couple, have come to India to stay at an Ayurvedic spa. Protected from the political and economic realities of India by the luxury of their accommodation and the efforts of their hosts, both are drawn by the mystique—the very notion of “being in India”—to commit infidelities. They soon discover the error of assuming that nobody matters but them, and that they are safe as long as they keep their indiscretions from one another.

The second novella concerns a Boston lawyer and businessman, Dwight Huntsinger, whose company develops outsourcing opportunities for American businesses. His first one-week trip to Mumbai is an utter horror. (“He had dreaded it, and it had exceeded even his fearful expectations—dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been.”) But on his next trip, he is lured into paying for sex with a young girl, and gradually he finds his own dark nature seeking its level, drawing him back and back again to relish the power he believes his money gives him over a small group of impoverished residents of the backstreets of Mumbai.

The third story tells the tale of a young woman, Alice, who has come to India from Providence with a university acquaintance. Their plan is to tour the country and then spend time on an ashram but Stella falls in love with a young filmmaker in Mumbai and decides to stay there. Determined that she has the strength to face anything alone, including India, Alice sets off by herself on an adventure that will find her putting her own talents and a hefty dose of misdirected feminism to use in ways that will ultimately bring her down. Like the characters in the previous two stories, she falls in love with India but fails utterly to understand it.

Over and over again in a dozen different ways throughout this book, Theroux reminds us that the longing of Indians for the perceived wealth and ease of the American way of life does not mean that they want to be Americans, or that they even like Americans. He points out the fallibility of westerners who come to India believing they are invisible and free and can therefore do whatever they want, and/or (to add to the confusion) that when they get into trouble, Indian society will deploy the same ethical and legal principles as the ones they might find at home. He demonstrates the ways in which Indians resist western ignorance: through subterfuge, lying, disappearing, ignoring, pretending—all behaviours that reveal their basic lack of interest in and respect for visitors to their country. Their concern is for themselves.

Theroux also wants us to know that only a very small part of India is reflected in the romantic, colourful, mysterious depictions of that country that we receive from other writers—including many of India’s own expatriates—to realize that up close it is for the most part a desperately poor nation where each day millions wage unsuccessful battles to find enough to eat. His message is effectively conveyed: as an avid reader of books about India who has longed for years to go there, I am now convinced to travel there with utmost caution, and to keep in mind that there are many, many boundaries that foreigners cross only at their peril.

Unfortunately, in The Elephanta Suite the message does nothing for the medium. All three novellas seem to have been set up to convey the author’s central lesson, and as a result their plots feel awkward and contrived. The second novella is the most successful–Dwight’s gradual recognition of his own emptiness and ignorance, and his ultimate awareness that the only way to redeem himself is to disappear, also redeem the ending. In the other two cases, the outcomes simply seem manipulated, unsatisfying—even a little old-fashioned.

Theroux is a gifted writer. As in his previous novels, his writing here is evocative and effective—rich in the endlessly fascinating details that seem to distinguish all books about India. He also successfully probes the minds of diverse American characters, although he makes no real effort to delve into the perspectives of the dozens of Indians he writes about; of these, indeed, only two can even be considered genuinely kind.

The Elephanta Suite serves as an easily digested (if unpleasant and disturbing) warning to those who would attempt to get a close-up view of India. However, Theroux’s apparent need to steer his characters in directions that will deliver this message undermines the quality of the fiction.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Mary,Liked your review of this book.As an Indian now living in the US, I was read Theroux’s book with fascination.As you’ve mentioned, no easy stereotypes about India for Paul. In many many instances, he shocked me with how accurate and trenchant his observations were. He knows India well, and it is always enlightening to read about ‘our own land’ as seen through another’s eyes.All that said, this is one book that I haven’t been able to recommend to my Indian friends or to my American ones.

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