Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
In the typical poet behaviour, Thayil immediately churns out a prologue which goes on for 7 pages without a single full stop. There isn’t a breather in place, just a suffocating reflection of a trance-like mind that has been drug ridden and now mirrored onto the page. The novel is set in the late seventies in Bombay, depicting the drug culture and the changes within it, such as the shift from the more respectable opium to dirty heroin with a vast amount of sex and violence thrown in for good measure; they do after all go hand in hand. The doors to Rashid’s drug den opens up before us and inside, a myriad of characters cross the threshold to have their pipes lit by Dimple, a eunuch who finds solace in the drug which shuts off her pain for a while.
What really shines through is this novel’s heavy resonance to the beat generation, particularly with WilliamS.Burroughs who wrote Junk and other drug induced fiction. Another obvious influence is the classic English writer who we all seem to study at university- Thomas De Quincey who famously wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Thayil tags along with Burroughs and depicts a foul, crumbling society. Thayil’s poetic background serves him well as we worm in and out of the character’s lives, as that of Mr Lee, a soldier who fled his communist country and took Dimple in as a daughter and protege. In fact, it is Mr Lee’s brief story which held much of my interest and was rather disappointed as we are in an almost rude fashion, refused a deeper entry.
Whilst odd and somewhat incomplete sub-plots are introduced only to be thrown away in an aggravating fashion, one can not help but be hypnotised by the lives that are rapidly spiraling out of control before our very eyes, leaving one with their legs spinning in the air as well as withdrawal symptoms at the end.
The end is predictable of course; there aren’t many varying outcomes for drug addicts, it’s just as well Thayil made it out of his many years living in a drug-induced stupor. I would be interested in finding out how many Dimples’ he knew for real, and was there ever really a Mr Lee?
Published by Faber & Faber