A Dead Hand, By Paul Theroux

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The Independent Culture

A psychoanalyst would have a field day with this book. In A Dead Hand, the veteran US travel writer Paul Theroux has created a literary crime novel of sorts set in Calcutta, told through the eyes of a veteran American travel writer, Jerry Delfont. Delfont is suffering writer's block (the novel's title is another phrase for the condition), and fears that he's washed up creatively, spiritually and emotionally.

Midway through the book, Delfont meets a fictional veteran US travel writer called Paul Theroux, a more successful and famous version of Delfont, whom he despises. The next 20 pages amount to a diatribe by Delfont about the act of travel writing, describing it as an emotionally stunted, puerile and selfish pastime, and brutally denouncing anyone who is stupid and arrogant enough to do it. This remarkable interlude is compelling, like rubbernecking a psychological car crash – but the rest of the novel is distinctly patchy, the bad points eventually outweighing the good.

The book is subtitled "A Crime in Calcutta" (Theroux's publishers presumably having one eye on a certain lucrative genre market), but the plotting is nowhere near robust enough for a crime novel. The hook, such as it is, is a letter from an American philanthropist, Mrs Unger, asking Delfont to look into the discovery of a dead boy in the hotel room of an Indian friend of her son's. Delfont accepts the invitation primarily because he's infatuated with the glamorous and sensuous Mrs Unger, the dominating air of her attention turning him into something of a simpering buffoon in her presence.

The crime element of the storyline disappears for large stretches, leaving a lot of time for Delfont to ponder existentially on his writer's block, observe modern India and daydream about Mrs Unger. As the two embark on a rather unlikely affair, there are long, tedious passages of tantric massage and sex, embarrassing scenes that will hopefully result in Theroux gaining a nomination in the next Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards.

That said, there is plenty of good writing in A Dead Hand. Thanks to a lifetime of travel writing, Theroux is adept at description and brings the insane and seedy chaos of Calcutta wonderfully alive on the page. As the plot kicks in later on, Theroux and an American diplomat friend travel to the remote Indian state of Assam, and once again Theroux is good at portraying the isolation and desperate poverty of the region.

He's good at observation, too. A Dead Hand dwells a fair amount on the uneasy relationship between India and the West, especially do-gooding Western visitors. As the case of the dead boy begins to lead back to Mrs Unger, Delfont rapidly has to re-evaluate his previous obsession with her, and starts to probe into her apparently altruistic motives for setting up orphanages and helping the poor and deprived children of Calcutta. Whether Theroux is qualified to comment on Indian society, I couldn't say, but the observations of Delfont, from his position as an outsider, seem to ring true on the page. Theroux clearly has something important to say about the way the West dishes out aid and advice and attempts to control countries such as India, but he shies away from it somewhat at the end of A Dead Hand, never really having the commitment to tackle the subject head on.

Which is a shame, because it surely would have made for a better novel. Instead, we have this rather ponderous affair that, despite some moments of fine prose, fails to engage as either a crime or a literary novel.