Man On Fire by Stephen Kelman, book review: Pain and its passport to inner peace

A strange, arresting novel that is threaded together by a chain of imagery

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The Independent Culture

Man on Fire, the follow-up to Stephen Kelman's Man Booker shortlisted Pigeon English, is a two-hander yoking John Lock, a diffident, disappointed Englishman, to Bibhuti Nayak, the sort of exuberant, Indian semi-mystic who might beggar belief if his extraordinary accomplishments weren't inspired by actual events. Despite his near-philosophical name, Lock is a lettings agent in late-middle age, whose marriage has been hobbled by the loss of a baby and who, as the action starts, is confronting his own death by bowel cancer.

If Lock's character is defined somewhat crudely by his nominative- determinist restraint, Bibhuti's is all about self-expression, realisation and dedication. He deserves a world record for breaking bizarre world records. In a glorious opening monologue that manages to be hilarious and sympathetic, Bibhuti recounts his inaugural boundary-buster: receiving 43 kicks to his unprotected groin. Such eye-watering stoicism is not just comically pointless, however. Being booted in the balls has its spiritual side: "The kicking was making a tremendous pattern now, sum of the best possibilities in the world was centred in my groin."

A chance glimpse of Bibhuti in action convinces Lock that a pilgrimage to Navi Mumbai holds the key to opening him up: "I had the feeling the weather would enjoy stripping me down to the vulnerable parts I could cover up with clothes back home." So far, so Beatles-meets-the-Maharishi. Only, Lock's mission demands that he break 50 baseball bats across Bibhuti's body. If the prospect of a white Englishman thrashing an Indian to within an inch of his life sounds disturbing, then Kelman buries such resonances in the sub-text and an epigraph by Ghandi.

Lock is unsure whether Bibhuti is a deity, someone to bear his pain and offer forgiveness, or just a man, every bit as fragile as he. Whatever the result, Bibhuti is certainly a wonderful creation who resists prat-falling into reductive buffoonery thanks to Kelman's nicely measured portrait. He can convince when he promotes the political aspects of his vocation: "What I am doing is telling people that if they endure the pain they will reach happiness that comes after."

At the same time, he is not immune to ego. Nor does his much-vaunted sympathy seem to include his long-suffering wife, who declares: "I do not want him to be a symbol… I just want him to be alive."

Man on Fire is a strange, arresting novel that is borne aloft by two vivid protagonists, and threaded together by a delicate chain of imagery. Blood, rain, fire and birds balance weight against weightlessness, levity against gravity, and strive to give form to what is fleeting, ephemeral or inexpressible. If there are moments when the prose gets a little heavy-handed Kelman's lightness of touch usually saves the day.

Above all, the novel offers a salutary meditation on time: how we fill it, how we waste it and the tricky challenge of telling the difference.