Monday, November 15, 2010

Greek death crisis

In his latest book The Emissary, Aniruddha Bahal tries to do with Seleucus what Hilary Mantel did with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall — fictional biography of a historical character. To put it more succinctly, Hilary “did it” while Bahal “barely does it”. The imagined story of Alexander’s original Macedonian officer takes off when his father Nicanor, an ace Macedonian charioteer of Olympia, is trampled to death under his own horses owing to the machinations of a rival charioteer at a practice session.

Since this is a book that claims to be a “tale of love, vendetta and war”, Seleucus defeats his father’s murderer at the race in a dramatic fashion and that triggers a chain of events, which force him to turn into an outlaw. Meanwhile, Seleucus’ mother and close friends draw the ire of his adversaries and that results in their death. With an all-consuming desire to smell his enemies’ blood, Seleucus becomes a skilful manipulator and how he avenges his near and dear ones’ death is the McGuffin chase for the reader. And here I was thinking that we meet tough guys only in Raymond Chandler novels!

Bahal, an acclaimed investigative journalist, won the Bad Sex Award for his previous book Bunker 13. The Emissary comes across as his attempt to uproot himself from the slums of pulp fiction to establish himself in the literary suburbs. In that case, this Greek bildungsroman is hardly the kind of book that will redeem his somewhat diminished reputation as a writer. The sparse language and deliberate (or was it inadvertent?) lack of colour create a series of static backdrops. The castles and palaces can hardly be differentiated.

In an article that he wrote for Open magazine, Bahal said that while reading Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander and Indica the idea of revisiting Greek battles, events and other historical landmarks of Alexandrian times through a character came to his mind. “It is through him that I imagine behind-the-scene events and forces that could have shaped the lives of King Philip, Alexander, the Persian King Darius, the Athenian orator Demosthenes, and others living in this era. From chariot racing in Olympia to naval escapades and battles, I had to research the whole gamut of Greek life,” he said.

Yes, the book ticks off every conventional Greek trope — treachery, enchantment, lies, brutality, adultery and constant violence — but emotional paucity is writ large on every page. One reason might be the number of characters (200, to be precise) that are crammed into this book so that it’s easy to take one’s eye off the ball (in fact, one character is even spelt wrongly twice on the same page). Another reason is that the greater part of this book looks at the fates of cardboard figures, like individual knights and their adventures, which tend towards a baffling monotony. Only Seleucus’ adventures are hero-like judging by the way he finds his way through every sticky situation. Here’s a genuine poster-child of the phrase “gift of the gab”.

This 444-page long book has its share of moments but they are too few in between. I was clinging more tightly to the book than the railing in an overcrowded Mumbai local train when reading the portions where Seleucus helps the Persian king and his soon-to-be ex-wife escape the clutches of Macedonians in a Shawshank Redemption manner that involves sewers and tunnels, and like the movie here too there is light at the end of the tunnel. The way Seleucus plots the death of Philip, Alexander’s father, is a shining testimony to Bahal’s storytelling exploits that are to be seen only in fits and starts in the book. The sequence where he takes hold of “monsters”, the ancient Greek equivalent of nuclear bombs, is truly electrifying.

The book’s breathtaking opening sequence of the chariot race gives The Emissary a headstart, which Bahal squanders to set up more characters and absolutely unnecessary back stories. Not until the reader is through three-fourths of the book that it gains steam again. However, by then the reader would fail to empathise with Seleucus’ desire for revenge considering he is happy with a wife and a son and too much money (drachmas as the Greeks would say) to play with. The cat-and-mouse chase between Alexander and Seleucus is hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff. A silver-tongued Seleucus does a Houdini even in the most adverse situation and suspending disbelief is difficult because this is the heart of the book. While the entire world is ganging up against him for “treachery”, it beats a simple mind like me to understand how Seleucus and his coterie of followers who stick together like nickels on a dime, get away with everything. Sadly, barring one, none of these escapes is remarkable or resonant.

Bahal’s editor should get a rap on the knuckles for not smoothing out quite a few avoidable infelicities. Pick your favourite gigantic cliché and it would find exalted position in the book. As there is little of either characterisation or strong narrative thrust that marks nearly every paragraph of Hamlet, Homer or Virgil, it is hard to maintain interest and, thanks to Bahal’s clunky prose, this book instead comes across as a really long Wikipedia entry.

The Emissary is a meandering mélange and a pointless pastiche. You can only use this book to stand on while changing the light bulb.

Aniruddha Bahal
Fourth Estate
444 pages; Rs 699


At 4:08 AM, Blogger sowmitra said...

That last line was very hilarious...when was it printed?


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