Into the monkey's jaws

Firdaus Kanga on a magic realist blockbuster; Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra Faber, pounds 15.99

For want of a kinder phrase, Vikram Chandra's first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, is a sort of magic-realist blockbuster. The tale concerns a monkey who is shot by Abhay, a young Indian just back from America, and decides he does not want to die. He makes a wager with the god of death: if he tells a story that will not bore his listeners, he will live. This simian Scheherazade speaks through a typewriter - paws instead of jaws - and attracts a growing audience.

Chandra enters Indian history as casually as if it were a supermarket. He drops into his basket a bit of everything from the ancient Indus Valley civilisation to the last blind Mogul emperor, from British adventurers to a Rajput princess who immolates herself. He alternates this hotchpotch with Abhay's tale from America - a weak-tea version of Philip Roth's early fiction, complete with masturbation in the bathroom while the mother stands outside.

Chandra is long-winded in his story- telling, even though he devotes little time to making his characters anything more than artificial devices for moving the plot along. He also has some heavy points to make, drawing leaden parallels between a fragmented pre-colonial India waiting to be devoured by the British, and the fissiparous India of the present, threatening to destroy itself through sectarian violence. However, there are moments when he writes from the heart, granting a sharp little look at Indian life: "That metaphysical state which is the burden and boon of servants - invisibility"; or a moment when the seven-year-old Abhay discovers the West in the pages of a Sears catalogue: "I had seen heaven, no, not exactly, but that this, this in front of me was what life must be."

However, it is not long before the click of typewriter keys begins to sound monotonous as the writer laboriously decides that here goes the Indian mutiny, there the courtesan, and in that corner the flagellation scene in the English public school. When the monkey travels to London in search of Jack the Ripper and meets a juvenile Mahatma Gandhi pointing at Queen Victoria's coach, we understand that the end cannot be too far away. And we are left with regret - that he did not lose his wager a long time ago.

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