Books Fiction: Dr Johnson goes to Bollywood

THE SILVER CASTLE by Clive James, Cape pounds 15.99
A couplet by Dr Johnson kept echoing through my head while reading The Silver Castle: "Let observation with extensive View/ Survey Mankind from China to Peru". James's novel certainly has the range of reference; although the action is placed firmly in Bombay, following its hero's struggle from pavement shanty-town to Bollywood, the author is constantly glancing outside India, to Latin America and the Far East but also to the West or Australia, putting Sanjay's local difficulties in the context of the rest of the world.

That's not the main reason why Johnson springs to mind, though. One critic remarked that those lines (the opening of "The Vanity of Human Wishes") say no more than "Let observation, with extensive observation, observe extensively." James's delineation of the vanity of human wishes - which wouldn't be a bad subtitle for the book, in fact - has something of the same tautology. At the end of the first chapter, dealing with Sanjay's early childhood, we're told that while circumstances were conspiring to undernourish him in body and mind, "the conclusion was not foregone. This was unusual, because on the Bombay pavements it almost always is." (Isn't that the way of things - that if they are unusual it's because the reverse is mostly the case?)

But the sense of redundancy has more to do with the way James makes the same points again and again. At the beginning, he repeatedly emphasises the sheer chanciness of life for the poor in Bombay, how amazingly improbable it is that Sanjay manages to survive infancy, let alone climb out of the dust and mud and catch a glimpse of success and security. Towards the end, the needle gets stuck on the idea that Sanjay can't focus properly on life, since his upbringing has given him only a fragmentary picture of who he is and how the world works.

The repetition isn't without point. James wants to establish an atmosphere of pedantic accuracy, to make you feel that he is reporting on real life and not just making it all up. He also wants to hammer home the message that poverty is far worse than you have (probably) imagined. That's true as far as I'm concerned: I hadn't ever thought in detail about what it might be like to be poor in Bombay, and I don't think I would have had sufficient information to work it out. James has the information all right; one of the book's several virtues - the most important being sheer readability - is that you never doubt that he has done his research.

But information is the book's greatest vice, too: it often lapses into a lecturing mode. The reader is addressed on the social organisation of begging in Bombay, on Indian makes of car, global varieties of phonetic alphabet, on art deco buildings around the world, on the desirability of deregulated markets. James doesn't just give you the facts; he also - another Johnsonian characteristic - can't resist telling you what to think.

All the intellectual globe-trotting feels like showing off. You suppose that when James hops over to Rio or Shanghai he's trying to place Sanjay among the teeming billions of the Third World. But a strangely complacent final chapter assures us that almost all the world's other problems (wars, famines, dictatorship) are curable; the poverty of Bombay, uniquely, is permanent. It's a lame conclusion that leaves you wondering what was the point of writing the book, and the point of reading it? There's no good answer to that.