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the complete review - fiction
The Elephanta Suite
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B+ : three times India, presented in distinctly Therouxian fashion
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "In clumsier hands, all this sexual tension could easily become a tired metaphor for, say, the rape of India at the hands of imperialism. But Theroux avoids this, first, because he's perfectly capable of showing that people can be predators wherever they come from and, then, because he's so good at showing the effects of Western economic clout. (...) The Elephanta Suite is an exquisite triptych in which figures on each panel change the way we see the rest of the composition; and the whole thing, for all its subtlety, is done in strong colours. Theroux treats all of his characters with an unsparing frankness, whether Indian or American. But the result is that neither side wins." - Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph
- "Indeed, the most germane idea at play in The Elephanta Suite is that distinctions between victim and victimizer, and between cultural exoticism, appropriation and appreciation -- traditionally set along gender, colour and continental lines -- fail to hold in contemporary India." - Randy Boyagoda, The Globe & Mail
- "Theroux's favoured methods include broad satire and parody, glib reversals and homing in on the grotesque (.....) Americans who imagine themselves free are ambushed by a voracious, conspiratorial society in which they are conspicuous and threatened. This makes for a curiously oldfashioned book. (...) After decades of polyphonic fiction from and about the subcontinent, it is strange to read such a complacently one-sided view, in which the locals are objects of lust, curiosity or ridicule but their inner lives remain closed." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian
- "Theroux's passages of erotica jar with the intelligence of the rest of his writing. Perhaps it's a metaphor for Western capitalism screwing over the East, but an author fast approaching 70 lasciviously detailing the services of Dwight's teenage Mumbai prostitute makes for queasy reading and it's not just the girl who's left with a bad taste in the mouth. Also, sometimes the sex simply defies the internal logic set out by the narrative. Theroux's real strength lies in his examination of the rifts and bridges between languages." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday
- "A revelatory book about a transformative place." - New York
- "Theroux’s new book of three novellas, The Elephanta Suite, is his attempt -- brought off with mixed results but distinguished by worthy intentions and sturdy tradecraft -- to display and explain contemporary India in all its swarming, seductive, anachronistic, disorienting dynamism. India’s contradictions seem to interest him most, especially its peculiar combination of ancient ascetic spirituality and information-age commercialism." - Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review
- "Theroux's subject is Americans in India, just as Henry James's was Americans in Europe. The difference is that these modern travellers are seeking to be open only to preselected aspects of their new surroundings. Theirs isn't a Grand Tour, but a narrow one. India overwhelms them anyway." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "Theroux's ability to transport himself is the key to his finest writing. These three novellas, in different ways, present transportation as their lure. For their central characters, strangers in India, breathing in the conundrum around them is the drug that keeps them heightened, the puzzle that teases and defeats them. To that extent it is the character of India itself that looms the largest, that transcends what these tales convey about the fates of their seeking strangers. (...) The book is a travelogue and a tribute, what it celebrates is the accident, the happenstance, the journey." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman
- "(H)ighly readable but unattractive (…..) While it might be argued that Theroux is merely representing the views of his western characters, there is also a sense that his unrelentingly grim version of India is being offered as some sort of corrective to the world described in such books as Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy -- particularly since the same objection to Indian novels is made twice. Rather than confound their initial impressions, the experiences the characters undergo merely reinforce them. (…) Some of the writing is surprisingly slack (…..) Similarly, the same basic point is often made several times or presented crudely (…) On the evidence presented here, Indian novels by Indian writers seem a better option." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times
- "But this isn't as formulaic as it sounds. Theroux has a sharp eye for the paradoxes and complex cultural by-products of India's recent economic awakening and The Elephanta Suite is at its most entertaining when re-working the old post-colonial themes in the light of the country's rapid but uneven development. (...) Theroux may be revisiting well-trodden terrain, but he hasn't lost any of his insight or power to enthral." - Ed King, The Telegraph
- "(A) set of brilliantly evocative and propulsive novellas (..…) Theroux's strength as a writer and a traveler has always come from his readiness to say and do what few of us would admit to, and it's a safe bet that these gleefully impenitent stories will not be promoted by the American Chamber of Commerce or the Indian Ministry of Tourism. (…) His characters begin in manicured, air-conditioned places, but it is the clammy grasp of desire, the smells and the slippery deals of the back alleyways, that really bring them out. The human bestiary has rarely found a more spirited observer." - Pico Iyer, Time
- "It should be clear by now that Theroux isn't likely to bring many new tourists to the subcontinent. But these novellas of hunger -- physical and spiritual -- only make sense in a country such as India, where such extremes meet constantly. (...) Though Theroux repeats himself just a bit in the middle of 'The Gateway of India,' the thought-provoking novellas of The Elephanta Suite are otherwise beautifully paced, by turns moving, sexy and disturbing. You could finish one in an evening, which means that at least three evenings this fall would be very well spent." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Elephanta Suite consists of three novellas, each describing extended stays by Americans in India.
Mumbai (Bombay) is the gateway, the Elephanta Suite the luxurious rooms at the finest hotel one through which at least some of the characters pass.
However, everyone, sooner or later, moves beyond Mumbai, into a more remote, isolated pocket of India: in 'Monkey Hill' the couple Audie and Beth Blunden spend their time at Agni, an Ayurvedic spa-retreat; in 'The Gateway of India' the business lawyer Dwight gets caught up in a different Mumbai but ultimately also escapes it (or is released from it); in 'The Elephant God' Alice is dumped by her travelling companion just as they are set to head to an ashram near Bangalore from Mumbai, and she goes there alone.
Each of the protagonists prolongs their stays in India, somehow caught up in the place.
The couple at the spa linger on there, extending their stay for yet another week again and again.
Dwight, who barely ventures outside his hotel and dares only to eat bananas (fearful of catching something if he eats anything else) when he first arrives there soon immerses himself completely in a seamier side of Mumbai life, and then can't escape it, returning to India as soon as he can after his initial trip, and then lingering on and on.
Alice lingers at the ashram too, taking a job at a call-centre where she then teaches the employees phone-English, first on a week-to-week basis, then reflecting "a month to month contingency", and then also remains in India because there is something else she has to see through.
In each story the characters come to discover India -- in a way.
They generally have firm preconceptions, sometimes ridiculously strong ones (such as Dwight's fear of the filth and disease he imagines is practically everywhere).
The wealthy protagonists -- the Blundens, Dwight -- first live in bubbles, catered to and treated with great deference.
Audie and Beth aren't even aware that there's a town near their resort.
Real India, or the rest of India, is teeming and largely overwhelming.
There's a sense of menace to it as well, which rises up in the stories in different ways, with each ending at a point far from where the characters ever thought they might be.
India proves to be too much for them, too: when they venture too far, coming too close to the 'real' India, India destroys them (or at least who they were).
"I am what I appear to be, and the Indian never is", one of the characters diagnoses.
That is how Theroux presents his characters: his Americans are innocents abroad, set in their ways and expectations, with a limited grasp of other cultures.
All things Indian remain largely unfathomable to them (something Theroux conveys very nicely, though it's a familiar trick from many of his books).
They also don't realise how much they stand out and how much they are unaware of:
"You look at India and see people everywhere and it seems like a mob," he said.
"But it's not -- it's like a family.
We know each other.
There are no secrets in India.
Hey, this isn't China !
Everything is known here.
And where a ferringi is concerned it's all public knowledge."
When the Americans venture beyond the expected and proper ambit -- spa, hotel, ashram -- they find themselves, practically before they know it, sucked into something much more complex.
Theroux offers something of a progression in his stories: the oldest protagonists, in the first story, are simply swept to their fate, and the fortyish Dwight in the second tale also finds things out his control -- but seems to accept it (or at least rationalises it that way).
Only the recent college graduate, Alice, in the closing story, is able to ultimately turn the tables, turning India on itself (though reaching that point comes at a very high cost to her).
Theroux's India, as seen through the eyes (and experiences) of his Americans, is at the very least always compelling.
There's a bit much eastern inscrutability, but given his naïfs much of that seems convincing: like the stilted English so many of the Indians they encounter speak, the foreignness of everything and everyone around them is disorienting: what seems obvious or clear rarely is.
The story-arc of 'Monkey Hill' is the least satisfying of the three novellas, the shadowy town near the spa, with its Hindu-Muslim strife, too obviously ready to bubble over.
A mosque had been built there, five centuries earlier, and then ten years ago was burnt down, because there had originally been a Hindu temple on the site.
There is continuing tension over the site and the sort of religious structure that belongs there, ancient, ancient history that still hasn't been settled.
Still, Theroux effectively describes the Blundens' blundering and the consequences, which snowball as the local issues flare up as well.
Audie and Beth are each tempted by a local and cross a barrier they shouldn't.
There are some other obvious barriers, too -- most notably that gate to the compound announcing: Right of Entry Prohibited Except by Registered Guests -- but the Blundens recognise everything (and most especially their place in this place) too late.
'The Gateway of India' begins the least believably, Dwight (and his colleagues') irrational fear of almost everything Indian feeling too exaggerated -- as is then Dwight's transformation.
But his fall is a seductive story, even where Theroux leaves little to the imagination, actually having the thought go through Dwight's head that:
I can leave now, and that will be the end.
I will be the same man.
Or I can stay, and follow the old woman's suggestions, and see it through, and something will happen that can't be undone.
Theroux picks the less interesting of the options, and Dwight sees it through.
The extent to which he becomes a changed man also seems unlikely, but Theroux neatly leaves doubts over the extent to which Dwight is controlling his own destiny.
He's successfully conducting business in Mumbai, aided by the very competent Shah, a Jain who won't even eat potatoes for fear of eating a living thing, and believes his other doings in Mumbai go unnoticed.
But, as all of Theroux's protagonists in these stories learn (usually way too late), nothing foreigners do goes unnoticed.
'The Elephant God' at least has the most plausible premise, the backpacking young Alice on a trip of self-discovery, her ambitions and expectations by and large the expected ones.
Throughout the book the wrong steps and words the Americans make, clashing with the local culture, do dawn on them, but it's often less a learning process than one of simple recognition.
They become aware (and, in part, self-aware); still, they generally don't take steps to adapt.
They want India on their terms, but India refuses to shape itself to these.
They always also see the possibility (indeed, inevitability) of escape, of leaving all this behind them and heading back home, but India threatens to overwhelm them, and it doesn't look like they can leave everything behind them (indeed, Theroux ends each story with the protagonists still on Indian soil).
Working at the call centre Alice is disillusioned by the transformation her students undergo when they're equipped with the American language:
It seemed to Alice that Indians were much ruder speaking American.
They sounded more impatient.
Naturally confrontational, these Indians now had a language to bolster that tendency and no longer had to rely on the subtleties of Hindi.
The obliqueness of Indian English, with its goofy charm that created distance, was a thing of the past.
The students were without doubt more familiar, even obnoxious in American.
Indeed, Alice wants to keep her distance, and does from almost everyone she is thrust into closer contact with.
The only real comfort she can find is in feeding an elephant, and when she needs to escape it is telling that she turns to and is taken in by Indians who don't understand her language at all.
Despite ostensibly immersing herself in India, she very much wants to keep it at bay; naturally and inevitably she, just like the other protagonists, is violated by it.
At one point Alice complains about an Indian novel, written by an Indian woman living in the US:
The book did not speak to her.
The problem with it and the others she'd read was that they did not describe the India she had encountered or the people she'd met.
Where were these families ?
The novels described a tidier India, full of ambitions, not the India of pleading beggars, or weirdly comic salesmen or people so pompous they were like parodies.
Theroux, of course, populates The Elephanta Suite with the whole gamut of Indian characters, and does a good job with it.
The ambitious professional class is also present, but so are the officials and servants.
Perhaps too often characters are defined almost entirely by their roles, but Theroux sees India as entirely fatalistic, and so presumably it's hard for him to imagine them otherwise.
And in not always being entirely who they seem -- or at least being recognised for who they are by the Americans -- Theroux manages some very effective scenes.
The Elephanta Suite does capture fast-changing India quite well, but what Theroux is really telling is the story of Americans in the contemporary world.
India -- and by extension, as he surely means it, the world -- is out of their league.
With a specific mind-set and limited understanding they can comfortably skim the surface, but dip a toe in too deep and they're in for the abyss.
Read a book instead, he may as well suggest .....
The stories aren't entirely convincing, but Theroux is a very good and entertaining (and enjoyably provocative) writer, and The Elephanta Suite is a solid, good read.
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The Elephanta Suite:
Other books by Paul Theroux under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar.
He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time.
Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.
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© 2007-2022 the complete review
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