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January 6, 2007

This game's a winner


In the American crime novel, the detective is often world-wearily aware of how his city really works: the corruption in government, corporate dealings, law enforcement. The fix is in.

In short, the American noir detective is often a failed romantic: The world doesn't fit his ideals, so he has taken to drinking and making surly wisecracks about women, the rich, cops on the take. One of the remarkable achievements in Vikram Chandra's stunning new novel, Sacred Games is its portrayal of the all-encompassing, ingrained nature of the corruption in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Everything is up for grabs, everything can be paid for -- over or under the table: police work, civic infrastucture, career advancement. And this is completely understood and accepted. It's even exalted as an extension of the aggressively entreprenerial, eat-or-be-eaten spirit of the city. The fat envelope is always ready. "Cash creates beauty," says one character, "cash gives freedom, cash makes morality possible."

And yet there's dignity and merriment in this darkness. Chandra's detective, Inspector Sartaj Singh, is immersed in this mordant world, but he's neither completely corrupted by it nor paralyzed by cynicism. He takes bribes (it's the way the system works), but he's modest about it. He's a Sikh, a would-be family man, proud of his traditions and his investigative skills (his father was a police officer, too). Sacred Games is hardly the first crime novel set in India -- consider H. R. F. Keating's Inspector Ghote series -- but it is a landmark work, a novel so ambitious and fully achieved it makes most American crime novelists -- the Lehanes, the Pelecanos, even the Ellroys -- seem naive and timid by comparison. This second novel from the author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain is a lurid epic of gangland bloodbaths, squalid poverty, movieland prostitution and religious fanaticism. But at its heart, it's an affectionate portrait of Mumbai: "this labyrinth of hovels and homes, this entanglement of roads," this Third World Oz, this impossible explosion of polyglot possibilities, of languages, faiths and hatreds.

Along the way, Sacred Games becomes something of a history of modern-day India, too (the title refers to both the country's religious background and the old 'Great Game' between Russia and Britain for control of India). Inspector Singh is tipped-off to the whereabouts of a tabloid-famous mob leader, but when he tries to arrest Ganesh Gaitonde in his bunker hideout, Ganesh kills himself first. Inspector Singh sets out to learn why.

The novel then becomes partly narrated by a dead man (India is too fantastical, too god-driven, to be conveyed by ordinary, crime-novel realism). In alternate chapters, the spirit of Gaitonde relates his own hungry rise to power, a rise that, as Singh discovers, involved wholesale smuggling, bankrolling politicians as well as Bollywood movies and, ultimately, doing dirty work for the Indian government's intelligence service. What was a police procedural and then a ghostly Godfather saga becomes a John le Carre espionage-cliffhanger. Inspector Singh finds that the bitter, Cold War-like stand-off between Pakistan and India -- between Islamic fundamentalism and radical Hindu nationalism -- has entered the era of nuclear terrorism.

For many American readers, Sacred Games will present a sizable and instant turn-off: 900 pages long with a bewildering foreign setting, a (very necessary) glossary of hundreds of Hindu and Indian terms, plus a partial index of charcters (only 36 are listed -- there are probably close to twice that by name in the novel). Even so, HarperCollins reportedly paid $1 million for Chandra's book (a best-seller in India). Indeed, its popular-commercial prospects are actually quite plain. As much as it is a multi-lingual dazzler of ambitious fiction, it's a rich, riveting thriller.

And the fact is that many readers seek out precisely this kind of full-immersion experience in a novel, an education into an entire world different from their own. Sacred Games more than supplies this -- here, there is family, faith, a romantic affair, a sexual obsession, blackmail, betrayal, a city on the brink of chaos, and all of it is lyrically, lovingly conveyed. Sacred Games is one of the very few 900-page novels of recent vintage that as I read it, I was always eager for more.

Posted by jweeks at January 6, 2007 8:14 AM

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COMMENTS

Jerome, I read the UK edition of Sacred Games back in Oct., and really wanted to like it a whole lot more than I finally did, but I found Chandra's use of a 'ghost' narrator (one of the two main voices in the book) to be considerably disconcerting, and tonally at odds with a story grounded ostensibly in the gritty reality of life in everyday Mumbai. I also thought the 'Inset' sections were unfortunately placed, dead-stopping the story's momentum unnecessarily for extended periods, but particularly near the latter parts of the book, when Chandra seemed to be thrashing around for an ending once Gaitonde's voice was finally silenced. In the final sift, I'd give Sacred Games 3 stars and no cigar, a massive misfire of a book, and one I find very difficult to recommend.

Posted by: LouisBranning at January 8, 2007 5:48 AM

At first, I thought the ghost narrator was an unwieldy contrivance, too, but portraying Mumbai isn't simply a matter of capturing the "gritty reality of everyday Mumbai" -- who said that was the book's only intent? The city is too fantastical; India is too full of gods and spirits (I think it was Rushdie who estimated it had more than 700 gods). So I came to accept Gaitonde, ultimately enjoying the bifurcated nature of much of the novel.

We'll have to agree to disagree. I think Chandra's writing was ultimately justified; it worked for me, and I'm an inpatient reader, not easily won over by elaborate metaphors and tricks, I notice that Paul Gray's review in the NYTimes grudgingly comes to the same positive conclusion, after tossing in every possible objection to the book, managing to accuse it of being both too commercially calculated and too abstruse (Finnegans Wake?? How in the world is it like Finnegans Wake??).

AN AFTERTHOUGHT: One thing that convinced me to give Gaitonde-the-ghost-narrator a chance was remembering that one of the great gothic noir films, Sunset Boulevard, is famously narrated by a dead man, William Holden's character.

Posted by: book/daddy at January 8, 2007 7:23 AM

Hey there!

I interviewed Vikram Chandra about this book (will be posting it Jan 10th) and I think you might find Chandra's insights into the novel revealing.

I too had no problem with the ghost narrator.

I have not read Love and Longing in Bombay, and was fascinated to discover that Sartaj Singh began his fictional life there.

Oh yes, in regards to the ghost narrator, Chandra went on at great length about how key the film noir was to creating this world.

Posted by: Cathi Bond at January 8, 2007 12:31 PM

Thanks for letting me know about your review of Sacred Games. I get the feeling that books that generate widespread discussion are more widely discussed than read. I hope that's not the case here. I am hoping for a full-immersion experience or at least an interesting take on the crime novel. And I look forward to all the Mumbai argot.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Peter at January 9, 2007 5:15 PM



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