Thursday, May 3, 2012

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil – Review

The word Narcopolis can have several meanings. It could mean “drug city” or, given the meanings of the suffix polis as either a city or a community of people or citizens, it could mean “drug people.” In this mystical, drug, sex, and violence infused, and often beautifully presented first novel, author Jeet Thayil may mean all of the above. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Penguin Press, 2012, 288 pp, $25.95) takes place in Bombay's infamous Shuklaji Street red light district during the 1970's and eighties. Narrator Dom Ullis, an addict, tells the story, but, for the most part, is invisible (and high) as the story of Dimple, a hijra (eunuch )prostitute and opium server in an opium den operated by Ramish. The narrative, almost always experienced through the distorted lens of characters high on varying drugs, follows an assortment of characters through their lives within the drug culture of a world modern India is trying (with some success) to stamp out. The author, who has previously published four volumes of poetry and has edited five other books, is also a musician. His writing, while at first seeming elusive and unfocused, emerges as a luminous meditation on human nature, the varying experiences of mostly lost people within the drug culture, the nature of personal freedom, and the opportunity for redemption. Having some difficulty picturing this world, I used Google Images to look up Shuklaji Street and hijra and was rewarded with more than I asked for. (R-rated taste warning here!)

I've never been a stoner nor a junkie. Neither have I experienced much in the way of the pretty vast world of writing this sub-culture has generated. Add to this the setting in a world I'm only vaguely familiar with and you may catch a portion of the difficulty I experienced in trying to ingest this book. Slowly, however, the beauty and the horror of surrendering oneself to the world of opium, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, each providing different kinds of physical and psychological experiences began to emerge for me as a reader. I'm a reader who glories in vicarious experience, yet the experience of the characters in this book are ones I don't care to come any closer to. Nevertheless, the world Thayil, a former addict himself, creates feels, sounds, and smells real to me. The sex isn't sexy; the highs aren't fulfilling; the violence, however, seems frightening, random, and cruel enough to me. By the end of the book, as one would expect, the drug world of Shuklaji Street has either destroyed or ended many lives, while even those who've managed to escape it are permanently affected by it.

Jeet Thayil

Jeet Thayil is a young, literary writer worth keeping an eye on. As increasing amounts of excellent writing in English continues to emanate from South Asia and Africa, it's worth noting that English is a remarkably flexible language read by even more than the hundreds of millions of people who also speak it. While Narcopolis is not a pleasant read, it's enlightening, interesting, and arresting. Narcopolis was supplied to me by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.


Other Stops Jeet Thayil's Book Tour

Tuesday, April 17th: The Year in Books
Wednesday, April 18th: Chunky Monkey
Thursday, April 19th: Unabridged Chick
Friday, April 20th: Raging Bibliomania
Monday, April 23rd: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Tuesday, April 24th: Stiletto Storytime
Wednesday, April 25th: Reading on a Rainy Day
Thursday, April 26th: A Novel Source
Monday, April 30th: Conceptual Reception
Tuesday, May 1st: A Reader of Fictions
Monday, May 7th: Chaos is a Friend of Mine
Tuesday, May 8th: Beastmomma
Thursday, May 10th: What She Read…
Thursday, May 31st: Poet Hound