Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amazon Grace

This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express.


“If I want a plot,” American litterateur Elizabeth Hardwick once sneered, “I’ll watch Dallas”. Her disdain is shared by many novelists, especially of the so-called literary variety, who feel that novels have a higher purpose than that of the mere narration of events. There’s merit in such an argument; yet, all one needs to turn it on its head is to come across a writer who uses plot to reveal character and not subsume it; to illustrate theme, not be diverted from it. Take the case of Ann Patchett, who demonstrated this most notably in her Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto – and now does it again with State of Wonder.

This plunges us from the start into the predicament of the 42-year-old pharmacologist Marina Singh, half-Indian and half-American researcher with a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. Her colleague has been sent to report on the progress of the company’s fertility treatment research in a remote location off Brazil’s Rio Negro, an Amazonian tributary. Now comes the shocking news that he’s died of a mysterious fever, something mentioned almost off-handedly in a letter from Dr Annick Swenson, who’s been heading the study and from whom there’s been no proper information or progress report for ages. It now falls to Marina to travel to Brazil and find Dr Swenson, report on her progress as well as try and discover the circumstances surrounding her colleague’s death.

Unsure of exactly how to proceed and beset by sweat-drenched nightmares of being parted from her father in Calcutta  – a side-effect of an anti-malarial drug – Marina flies to Manaus, a city on the Rio Negro, from where she must travel upriver to confront Dr Swenson and the little-known Lakashi tribe. This, of course, has all the hallmarks of a distaff Heart of Darkness, with Dr Swenson making for a compelling Kurtz. (Another resonance is that of the fable of Eurydice and Orpheus, specifically mentioned during an episode when some of the characters attend an operatic performance based on this myth.) The intelligent but pliant Marina must fight demons within and without to achieve her objectives, and while the format may be Conrad’s, the updated concerns here are to do with the ways of pharmaceutical companies, the ways of ‘modern’ and ‘unspoiled’ worlds, and the ways in which we uncover what matters to us.

Compelling characters apart, one of the many charms of this novel is the way Patchett creates a sense of place for them to inhabit. The icy-cold, open spaces of Minnesota; the tropical dilapidation of Manaus; and the lush, unpredictable rainforest: such are the contrasting backdrops of State of Wonder that come alive through telling detail.

It must be admitted that it’s not smooth sailing all the way. There are stretches in the middle where the narrative tends to turn sluggish, like the Rio Negro itself, and some incidents towards the end do strain credulity. Overall, though, Patchett’s pacing serves her well as she stretches the elastic tension between action and revelation without letting it snap.

State of Wonder, then, is a highly readable as well as unusual work. If this is what paying close attention of the mechanics of plot can produce, by all means let us have more of it.

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