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

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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)