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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003