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Updated: April 3, 2010 17:06 IST

Great atmosphere, foggy view

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In spite of a narrative flaw, Maria's Room manages to take the reader along…

Not many novels are able to combine good writing with good story-telling. Maria's Room comes close — which makes the shortfall easier to sight. This atmospheric, highly literary novel is also an example of a mis-crafted narrative, which, while containing all the elements of a powerful story, doesn't effectively arrange them.

But the elements are there. Shreekumar Varma sets his book in rain-lashed Goa, an inspired choice of setting for a protagonist on a breakdown. Far from the revelry of sun and sand, this is a Goa of overflowing streets, vivid foliage, lonely, courteous hotels. It is the perfect place to brood, and that is our narrator's intention. Following his arrival in Goa, he takes us through his sojourns to the town, his encounters with locals and fellow guests, and his abiding introspections. He is Raja Prasad, a novelist searching for material for his next book, while wrestling with the failure of his last — and more than that, with the scars of personal tragedy. Soon he shifts into ‘Maria's Guesthouse', and drifts into an affair with a young girl, even as he learns the story of another love, from another time. But the events of the past are impinging on the present, and the novel that Raja is writing begins gradually to lay bare his own predicament.

The unreliable narrator

However, as readers, our grasp of the demons that assail Raja — either what they are, or where they come from, or what is strange about them — remains only vague until late in the book. Realistically, this is not a problem — an afflicted narrator need not be particularly informative. But the question, from an artistic perspective, is whether he is then fit to narrate. Imagine, for example, a party at which a man is drunk out of his wits and involved in a series of fascinating scrapes. He is certainly the subject of a great story — but he is no position to recount it. We would much rather listen to a more sober onlooker, someone capable of marshalling the facts.

Something similar is the central defect of Maria's Room — a defect of story-telling. Raja tells us too little, until it is too late. Even the murkiest mystery arises from facts, and our interest in his situation could only really be piqued if we knew something solid about it. But his narrative, though rich in thought and observation, is short on facts. We are led to a conclusion without ever being primed for it. And when we finally understand, not just the secret of Raja's pathology, but the bare details of it, we wish we'd been told before.

Skill and sympathy

Even saddled with this defect, though, the book remains very readable. Partly this is testament to Varma's skill with words. He brings to life the primal energy of Goa in the monsoons, so that even when the story flags, the atmosphere holds. His descriptions, as a rule, are precise and vivid: the rain ‘writhes' against a window, a breeze ‘dances' across a swimming pool, lights glow ‘damply'. His language has flair: a cell phone is shaken ‘like a faulty thermometer'; interrupting a compulsive talker is likened to ‘boarding a train in motion'. But more than writing well, Varma cares about his protagonist — and that feeling communicates. Raja may be an enigma to us, but he is appealing in his vulnerability, and his open acceptance of it, as, for example, in his relationship with his father. Not many 31-year-old men could accept their parent's constant concern, and yet come across courageous. And not every writer could write them like that. Which is why, despite its errors of craftsmanship, Maria's Room is well worth visiting.

Maria's Room, Shreekumar Varma, HarperCollins, 2010, p.332, price not stated.

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