BOOK REVIEW / Swashbuckle and decay in an ancient city: 'City of Djinns' - William Dalrymple: HarperCollins, 16.99

Flapping morosely around this volume, a schadenfreudean albatross, is the reputation of In Xanadu, William Dalrymple's entrancing and wildly successful first book. It must have been a cruel challenge to write a sequel to such a virtuoso performance, and it is a pleasure to be able to cock a snook at that damned bird, and report that Dalrymple has pulled it off again.

The kind of book he has chosen to write this time, the form in which he has written it, even the style itself - all, one feels, have been carefully chosen to avoid the notorious pitfalls of the Second Book. For all his easy prose, Dalrymple is not a very spontaneous writer. Well-digested outside influences were apparent in In Xanadu - notably that of Robert Byron, the guru of English literary travellers - and one notes from the acknowledgements that City of Djinns was read and commented on by at least 21 people before its author committed it to publication.

It is a measure of Dalrymple's developing skill that the book shows little of this calculation. There is none of that sense of pastiche which haunted the bubbly pages of In Xanadu, and Byron is no longer lurking between the lines. At a time when the book of travels seems at last to be losing its fashionable allure, City of Djinns is not a travel book at all. It is not even a book about a place, really, but as its sub-title suggests, is a kind of memoir, recording the responses of a single gentle, merry and learned mind to the presence of an ancient city.

Like Delhi itself, it is a sprawling and loosely layered thing. Dalrymple does not even aim at completeness, and very sensibly too. You will find little here about the contemporary moneyed classes of Dehli, very little about politics, almost nothing about the traumas of the independence movement, no catalogue of buildings, certainly no mention of restaurants or nightclubs. The Dalrymples' flat, described as being 'near the Suti village of Nizamuddin', could equally be defined as being near the Delhi Golf Club and the Oberoi Hotel, but if William and Olivia socialised with the jeunesse doree and the diplomatic set, we hear almost nothing of it.

Instead the book hangs upon two more organic strands. On the one hand Dalrymple records astutely and kindly (if sometimes a little patronisingly) his dealings with simpler sorts of Delhi-wallahs. On the other he explores in depth selected periods of the city's history. Every Delhi book ever written goes on about the successive civilisations that have established their capitals here: Dalrymple skims over most of them to concentrate most effectively on the transitional period that overlapped the decline of the Moghul Empire and the rise of the British.

It is unfortunate that his wife (who drew, by the way, the book's delightful illustrations) is descended from William Fraser, one of the best- known British adventurers of that time, because we get rather too much of him - at one moment we are even snatched away from Delhi altogether to explore the in-laws' family records in Scotland. Nevertheless, Dalrymple is at his best in evoking those painted times of swashbuckle and decay, often in vivid topographical detail, and alternated with piquant anecdotage about life in Delhi a couple of centuries later.

It is a third preoccupation, though, that gives the book its frail cohesion. Its title refers to a rather unconvincing adolescent encounter with a sufi, but it does genuinely represent the nature of this complex and misleading work. The djinns of the author's imagination are the powers of mysticism that give this great capital a significance so different from the strength of a Washington, the tradition of a London, the elegance of a Paris or the baleful suggestiveness of a Berlin. In almost every corner of Delhi, in almost every aspect of its life, the force of spiritual belief shows itself, and Dalrymple immerses himself in its essence - not just the strangeness of everything, but the sanctity too.

Inevitably the peculiarities figure large. Delhi is one of the most astonishing of all cities, and City of Djinns certainly does not neglect its amazements, of the past as of the present - from the war elephants and arcane aphrodisiacs of Shah Jehan to the thriving eunuch communities of today. We are given quotations from Ibn Battuta, Dargah Quli Khan, Francois Bernier, the Mahabharata and of course various members of the Fraser clan. We explore inner recesses of the Old City, mosques, temples, mysterious ruins, the haunts of sadhus and the shrines of sufis.

Dalrymple is anything but a voyeur, though. Even his excursions into the worlds of the eunuchs are conducted with courteous and engaging sympathy, and he surveys the multitudinous religious rites of Delhi, so esoteric to alien eyes, sometimes indeed so repulsive, with a grave kind of innocence. He is more a pilgrim than an observer, trying always to understand, and if at the end of the book he seems no nearer enlightenment, perhaps that is the fate of most pilgrims. He rounds the work off with another improbable experience, this time a historico-mythical insight of his own supposed to have occurred to him on the very day he was leaving for Britain; but the suggestion of fiction that attaches itself to this concluding tale, unjustly - perhaps it really did dawn on him that last morning? - only adds to the effect of an earnest and somehow childlike quest.

I suppose it is really not a quest for spiritual fulfilment anyway, but a quest for literary form. Devotees of structuralism may be disappointed in this book, but I was taken with the properly Indian liquidity of it. It is the work of a man who has consciously chosen to commit himself to the profession of letters, more like an American than a Briton, and in it we see the first fine rapture of In Xanadu deepening into a profounder dedication.

Decades of strenuous labour lie before William Dalrymple, as he wrestles with his craft; hours and hours of pleasure for his readers.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...