The Red Book fails dismally with its exotic stereotypes of India and its unlikeable characters...
If you think the ‘India as exotica' novel is a thing of the past, think again. If the Brits did it for centuries and if the Indian English novelist took over so admirably, from novels called The Romantics to ones with saris, guavas, arranged marriages and sari shops in their titles, why shouldn't the Australians hop on as well? So, Meaghan Delahunt writes The Red Book which is a collage of bad photographs as sentences, Buddhist mumbo-jumbo, deaths that are forms of communication with other worlds, hijras with pink hibiscus in their hair and the Bhopal gas tragedy as the framing nightmare and we are asked to be stunned into silence.
The book took me months to read and not only because of all this insufferable exotica but because, principally, it is so badly written. Each section opens with a scene described in a bad brushstroke, a scene like a Raghu Rai photo. But while Rai's photos have, on occasion, something to say, the chapters that follow each of these sections do not. They are just endless assemblages of local Indian colour. Further, the novel has three protagonists – a Scottish drunkard and monk, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and an Australian photographer, but somehow it does not really matter, as they all sound like one person. There is no variation in tone, in tenor, in the colour of the writing (and I don't mean to beat that dead horse of authenticity – I'm not complaining that the Buddhist person who barely knows English sounds like a Brit (he actually just sounds like the other two protagonists) – I'm asking, why couldn't we just have one protagonist as the other two are so unconvincing? The writing is all abbreviated sentences, as though the author is aware that all this has been done before and she wants to get on with it past the exotica.
Problem is, she never gets past it. If the novel opens with this epigraph – “She chooses the photographs, places them in an album and binds them in red fabric. The photographs speak of India, of different people and places; they span continents and time. To touch an album is to put it back into motion; to turn the pages is an ongoing story” – you know you are in for a bad time. To make matters worse, this is what Granta has to say in the inside flap of the novel: “It captures the irresistible lure of India for outsiders and its complex spiritual and political history. Written in vivid, imaginative and resonant language, it is a meditation on relations between East and West, on personal and collective responsibility, and of ways of being in the world.”
The irresistible lure, I'm afraid, comes in the way of personal or collective responsibility. Bhopal becomes nothing more than dramatic backdrop for more bad pictures (as if there aren't enough) till it begins to feel like an insult, like a gross act of irresponsibility. It is difficult for the reader to begin to care for any of the protagonists, not just because they all sound like each other, you feel they are welcome to each other; none of their angst and interpersonal shit (the Scottish monk and the Australian photographer are lovers who don't make it, though like good heteros they make a baby while they are at it) really makes one feel like one cares.
Indeed, it's hard to like the central protagonist, who is clearly the Australian photographer, if only because she hogs most of the book, including the guys' sections. She is a really bad photographer if what inspires her to whip out her camera is anything to go by and we get no sense of her interiority and what she's holding back; and what's she all messed up about for us to tolerate her weird behaviour through the book. Given that the men are so badly sketched, it's even more difficult to relate to them, especially Naga, the Tibetan monk, who only seems like a foil to these two messed up white folk.
Indeed, it seems like India, the Bhopal gas tragedy, gas victims dying, hijras, Indian trains, the weather, you name it, are all foils to the antics of these two deeply uninteresting white folk. This makes the only protagonist one relates to the bilious, bigoted and wonderfully racist old sardar landlord in the book, but he too succumbs to the mumbo jumbo in the end and then it's time to call it a day.
The Red Book; Meaghan Delahunt; Granta; Price Unknown.