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The setting for Kristin Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods is a forest in the midst of nowhere, where disparate people keep popping up. On one occasion, a nun arrives and tells the man of the house who quickly falls for her, “Tough I’d very much like to be with you, I can’t because I’m a nun. I can’t be unfaithful to Jesus nor to his father and mother.”
OK, those are her rules. So the farmer, whose name is Rafael, remarks, “Aren’t there whores who sometimes dress up as nuns in the whorehouse?” and he pleads with her to give in to his desires, telling her more directly, “I want you.”
To wit, the nun responds, “I want you too. That means I have to say extra prayers at services for the next few weeks. That’s the most shocking thing I’ve discovered since I became a nun, that my body should be enticed by a fellow traveler, yes, a stranger, my love.” Shortly, the two of them begin kissing and the nun says she wants to sing him a bawdy song which another nun sang just before she committed suicide.
Rafael asks if nuns can commit suicide, and the horny nun replies, “It’s surely good to commit suicide when one has given up on getting any attention,” and she asks if he minds that she plays his guitar while she’s naked.
So, while naked, the singing nun croons a rather explicit ditty, before the two of them get to it. And the next day the nun disappears.
Children in Reindeer Woods is weird, any way you look at it. In the opening scene, three paratroopers drop down from the sky and—except for an eleven-year-old girl named Billie—kill everyone at a “temporary home for children,” on a farm in the middle of a war zone in an area surrounded by woods. Then one of the soldiers shoots the other two, digs a huge hole in the ground and buries all of the dead because the remaining paratrooper, Rafael, says he can’t pass up the opportunity to be a farmer.
It’s a bloody, awful opening, full of senseless carnage that leaves Billy—whose parents have left her at the children’s home seemingly to protect her from the war—alone with the AWOL sycophant. Billy’s not exactly typical either but precocious beyond her biological years. She asks herself, “Was she a captive now, a hostage, a prisoner of war, his booty?” Needless to say, she’s frightened to death.
The next morning—after watching her carefully throughout the night, his gun at this side—Rafael says to Billy, “I fed the chickens and got the freshly-laid eggs…. That’s something I’ve never done before in all my life. I’m a born farmer.” Later, when he realizes that he’s left his gun in the kitchen where Billie could have grabbed it, he picks it up, points it at the girl, and tells her, overly politely, “Kindly—please, go ahead—head up and get dressed, clean your teeth, then come back down once you’ve finished.”
The story gets stranger. The two of them live as father and daughter and cultivate the farm during what turn out to be the summer months. During that time, other people arrive and are shot by Rafael who later begins to question his murders and mends his ways. One morning he comes downstairs and throws several of his toes into the garbage. “I’m done with murder weapons…. Just now I packed the guns away and made a serious deal with myself…. In the future I will shoot off one toe for each person who gets transformed into a corpse on my account.” Makes you feel that you are back inside a Sam Shepard play where things just keep getting more and more bizarre.
Where does this Grimm fairy tale (with shades of Bonnie and Clyde) take place? Not in Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s native country: Iceland. That’s impossible because the farm is pretty well self-supporting, with crops including oranges, tobacco, and coffee beans. There are also near-by areas known as the Ceaseless Heath, the Forever Valley, the Endless Pass, let alone the Reindeer Woods. Rather, Ómarsdóttir has written a fascinating parable of the psychological bindings that connect victim (Billie) to tormentor (Rafael), the age-old duplicities of the power figure indoctrinating his victim into his methods be they criminal or violent.
Children of Reindeer Woods is a hilarious romp into the areas of our psyches most of us would rather leave unquestioned. There are passages of the novel that connect Billie’s thoughts to her off-stage parents that are strained, even boring, but the surface narrative is as strange as any story you will ever read. The translation into English is a dream.
The pun in the title of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is intentional—a story about drugs that in almost every way is also about death, so take your pick: necropolis or narcopolis. And the place? Bombay, once known as the city of opium, though in more recent times the place has been cleaned up. But when Dom Ullis first arrives in Bombay in the late 1970s, drugs are readily available, especially in certain notorious areas, though strangely, Narcopolis does not convey much of a sense of place. Probably because most of the main characters are constantly high, zoned out on opium, heroin, known by the local terms of maal, garad, and chandu, though there’s also hash and plenty of booze, so you take your pick.
To call Narcopolis a novel is a bit of a stretch, though Randall Jarrell’s definition of the genre (“A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”) is quite applicable here because, like Jarrell, Jeet Thayil began his career as a poet. And this “novel” is a bit of a mess, which is not to say that it isn’t an astonishing story, a memorable narrative. It’s simply that if the publisher hadn’t already called it “a debut novel,” one might regard the book as a memoir. Dom Ullis leaves New York and goes to Bombay in order to get high. While there, he meets a variety of strung-out characters, develops a number of friendships, but then after a few years he leaves. When he returns a decade or so later, some of those people are dead, and the drug scene itself has changed in many ways, most notably in its accessibility.
As the narrator, Dom is of little interest, though his flatness does not prevent him from introducing other characters who are distinct, particularly Dimple and her sugar-daddy Mr. Lee. Dimple, especially, because she is a throw back to another era when some young boys in India had their lives taken away from them. When still a child, he was gelded and docked. As he tells Mr. Lee many years later, “I was nine or I might have been eight…. It was about a year after I came to Bombay, to the hijar’s [eunuch’s] brothel. A woman was called, a famous daima, Shantibai. There was singing and dancing and whisky. The daima told me to chant the goddess’s name and she gave me a red sari. She made me drink whisky. I hated the taste but I drank it. They gave me opium. Then four of them held me down.” The rest of the description is not for the faint-hearted.
What the story establishes is that there are plenty of men who go to brothels in order to have sex with a eunuch, that Dimple for a time can demand premium prices. Moreover, by the time Dom encounters her, Dimple is comfortable with her identity as a woman, though she—like the others—by then is also addicted to opium. In one of the more revealing scenes in the story, Dom records the question that Dimple asked him many years ago, “She asked why it was that I, who could read and write and had a family that cared enough about me to finance my education, who could do anything I wanted, go anywhere and be anyone, why was I an addict.” The question also cuts deeply because Dom describes Dimple’s attempts to teach herself to read, to break away from opium addiction and become someone else.
If sex and drugs are the primary focus of Thayil’s story, Narcopolis is also a somewhat cryptic commentary on writing itself. No surprise, as I mentioned above, that the author is known for his poetry. Mr. Lee—Dimple’s elderly companion who fled China for India after World War II when the Nationalists broke away from the Communists—grew up in a literary family where survival was a constant struggle against Chairman Mao’s dictates against creative work, especially fiction. Mr. Lee’s father was a novelist, incarcerated by the Red Guards. There are numerous allusions to writers in the story, an odd digression about an intricate poetic form—plus the narrator’s description of an encounter with a celebrated Indian writer who also frequents the brothels during the years when Dom is on his daily spree to remain under the influence.
The transformations, the transmogrifications at the end of the novel are as convincing as any of the other eclectic shifts in focus, including the movement from drugs to lit crit, from Bombay circa 1970 to circa 1990. The publishers draw analogies with Baudelaire and William S. Burroughs, though parallels to Poe seem just as likely.
Kristín Ómarsdóttir: Children in Reindeer Woods
Translated by Lytton Smith
Open Letter, 198 pp., $14.95
Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis
Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.