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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine