Type that gets under your skin

RED EARTH AND POURING RAIN by Vikram Chandra, Faber pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
ONE of the unhelpful comments regularly made since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is that no one who reads The Satanic Verses can get past page x, usually a number lower than 10; this in circles where, anyhow, full penetration of books is not often gone in for.

They said it about Midnight's Children too. It was never a literary judgement, more a calculated way of sucking up to an alarmingly wide constituency of decent folk with an aversion to using their wits. Vikram Chandra, like Rushdie an Indian with strong links to the West, has written another big, culturally macaronic, book that people will proudly assert failure to crack. When Midnight's Children came out, it was actually hard to stop reading when you had entered the first beautiful conceit of the woman's body viewed piecemeal, for reasons of propriety, through a pierced sheet. It was an image of Indian life in fact unexaggerated but intensely odd to the western mind.

Chandra also begins with a coup de theatre, but it asks more of the reader. Its main protagonists, for a start, are gods, as domestically present and at the same time transcendent as the looming visitors from Olympus on a Greek vase. Its focus is the soul of a wounded monkey, fought over by the gods of poetry and death. The monkey, no doubt with sly reference to the old peanut about monkeys and typewriters, is spared on condition that it type out a tale. The story must not end, or death will come. In both senses, stories sustain life.

At this early stage, the reader must trust Chandra, even when the story fractures in a way that is off-putting. He has taken considerable risks in moving his story not only through centuries of time but also - less organically - between 19th- century India and present-day America. Present-day India clips the whole together and brings the book full circle in a way that does to an impressive extent succeed in the declared intention to "tell a story like a lotus vine, that will twist in on itself and expand ceaselessly, till all of you are part of it, and the gods come to listen, till we are all talking in a musical hubbub that contains the past, every moment of the present, and all the future".

In its fluctuations of depth, riotous and successful inelegance, information- drunkenness, anger, sporadic realism and constructive vulgarity this novel reminds me of a book much better than its reputation, Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers. Vikram Chandra, like Burgess, can't contain his polymathy, nor will his cleverness lie down. Certain phenomena and characters, as in Burgess's novel, are delineated with smarting dislike, among them the British Raj, Englishmen in general, the East India Company and public school buggers. Chandra is more interesting when he is playing a more subtle game. His gift is an unusual one; the writing feels almost wholly intellectually driven, yet it is full of heat. The root of the great unwieldy vine that the book sets up is explicitly nourished by revulsion against the "cleanness" of Aristotle's Poetics and its various - to Chandra, and, he suggests, to the Orient itself - chill stipulations.

Within the novel a dazzling multiplicity of stories, books even, is grafted together, written in various styles without often falling into pastiche, except in the case of the visits to contemporary America which are couched in language that is glabrous and cumulatively affectless - I presume intentionally, since Chandra is intelligent on the relation of pornography to art. Abhay, a young upper-class (Mayo School) Indian at an Ivy League college makes a journey across the States with two spoilt American friends. Parts of the novel are like a road movie in which we meet characters of supernatural gabbiness and self-knowledge and listen to their - exemplarily modern - tales.

The epic core of the novel is the story of two brothers, the poet Sanjay and the warrior Sikander. It is the story of more than one nation and century; caught up in its often fantastical branches and glowing imagery are delicate and affecting portraits - of Gul Jahaan the lovely concubine who cannot bear a living child, a splendid Begum, a host of nice children and Sarthey the ascetic British doctor who comes to be the presiding evil angel of the book, but starts off, as the devil must, by being charming. The crux, though, is in a long passage when Sanjay is apprenticed to Markline, an Englishman with a passion for print.

In this fine section, Chandra joins the question of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, paternalism, the physical satisfactions of print and the seditious power of words in an account that is as relevant to the Indian Mutiny, which it ostensibly describes, as to the fate through history of writers who have been punished for their words. At its climax Sanjay swallows the type he has used to insert subversive messages into texts. The type settles around his neck, a heavy internal bond of black metal like the chain of a slave. When it is needed, though, the type spits itself out of his skin ready to be used as puissant ammunition against the British in India - our very own letters, used against us.

Here, metaphor and prose are welded with a hypnotic quality that marks this certainly overreaching, but also shade-offering and fruitful book as the start of something as rewarding as it is challenging. There is a combination of grandeur (in the mythic sections) and poignancy when Chandra's voice is at its most individual:

"Then I remembered the Saturday night movies at Mayo, all of us sitting on the rising steps of the cricket pavilion, the canvas screen planted on the boundary line, the beam of light from the projector piercing the darkness, the desert breeze across our faces, the Indians on the screen, and us cheering for the cowboys."

And while on the subject of cricket; it is typical of this book's self- satisfied insistence of tone that the nasty, redfaced, cricket-crazy, imperialist, cow-rib-guzzling American grandee with whose daughter Abhay sleeps and after whose wife he lusts must be called William James.