Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

Jerry Delfont is a travel writer. He finds himself at loose ends in Calcutta, making speeches at various locations for the American Embassy, and trying to fight off "dead hand", another term for writer's block. His is an extremely bad case and he wonders if he will ever find a way to write again. Sitting in his hotel room, he receives a handwritten letter from a Merrill Unger, who asks for his time and help with a delicate situation. Although he doesn't know her or hasn't even ever heard of her he has nothing else to do and he agrees to meet her.

Mrs. Unger comes to the hotel with her son and his friend, Rajat. At first glance, Delfont sees that she is a wealthy woman, who seems to have an air of mystery about her. She seems to fit in with the stereotypes of the colonial ruling class in India. Her problem involves Rajat. He had stayed in a local cheap hotel while the Ungers were out of town. He awoke in the middle of the night to find a dead boy lying in the floor. Stunned, he packed his things and ran from the hotel. Now he is unsure what to do or if the police are looking for him. Mrs. Unger requests that Jerry investigate the matter and see if he can determine what has happened and if the police are investigating the matter. Delfont is unsure why he has been asked; he is a travel writer, not a detective. But as the meeting goes on, he finds himself charmed by Mrs. Unger, or Ma as she is known to all, and agrees to look into the incident.
As he attempts to discover the truth, he finds himself drawn more and more to Ma. She is a woman of means who has chosen Calcutta as her residence. No one seems to know much about her, which is unusual in a former colonial setting, where all British and Americans tend to know each other, or at least of each other. Ma devotes her life to the poor children of Calcutta; the beggars and street urchins. She has turned her palatial home into an orphanage for these children, and there is never a shortage of candidates. She brings them into her home to live and educates them. The children are plucked from pan and misery and given a new lease on life by the Ungers. Much of the mystery about her comes from the fact that she funds this home entirely from her own means, not asking for help from the various social organizations or the local government but using her own wealth and business contacts.
Ma is also a devotee of Indian religion; specifically the goddess Kali. She eats only natural food and that very sparingly. She is a master at Tantric massage and uses this mechanism to introduce Delfont to her beliefs. He is overwhelmed by her personality and the difficulty of finding out anything about her. One minutes he is hopelessly devoted to her and the next he is attempting to break out of her sphere of influence. He is more successful learning about the incident with Rajat. He learns enough at the flophouse to convince himself that the incident of the dead boy did occur, although the police were never involved. The book deals with the way that Delfont is drawn deeper and deeper into the Ungers' world and starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this powerful, generous woman. As he delves into the mystery, he is unblocked and his writing starts to flow again.
An interesting sidelight is that a chapter has Delfont meeting the author Paul Theroux in Calcutta. He dislikes him on sight and feels that he is pitiless, using others' tragedies to make fodder for his writing. This is a common device of Theroux's books, that he brings himself into the action, and usually in a fairly negative viewpoint. The reader feels a frisson of interest from this sudden introduction, as it makes the reader take a step back from the book's action to try to discover why this is done.
As Delfont becomes more involved in Mrs. Unger's life and businesses, suspense starts to build. Why did she not just go to the police or the Consulate? Why has she chosen Delfont to investigate the matter, and how has she even heard of him or known that he was in Calcutta? Is her selflessness what it seems or does she use her charity as a cover for more sinister activities?
This book is recommended for all readers. It pulls the reader along just as Delfont is pulled along and starts to uncover the intricate, involved life of this mysterious woman. The reader learns much about modern-day Calcutta and how the culture there works, and the part that religion plays in everyday life. Suspense starts as a quizzical wondering and builds to a stunning crescendo as the plot devolves and the life of the Ungers is revealed. Theroux has created a character in Ma Unger that the reader will not soon forget.


Bek's Books said...

Well thanks for htis one Booksie - Sandie. I'm a fan of Theroux' travel writing and I've read a few mysteries, too. This one sounds great.

Sandie said...

I personally can't imagine Theroux writing a bad book, he's one I always enjoy.