In Paul Theroux’s 1977 short story “Diplomatic Relations,” an American diplomat in Malaysia receives a letter from a female colleague, his former lover, warning of her impending visit. Their reunion in a Singapore hotel is brief and awkward, and the diplomat’s sentiments, summed up in the final line of the story (“I didn’t want her to pity me”), make for a memorable study in passive-aggressive behavior.
“A Dead Hand” also begins with a woman’s letter to a male protagonist, and another similarity between the two works is soon apparent, as Theroux takes perverse enjoyment from building up reader expectations and then using literary judo to trip them with the unexpected.
The recipient of the letter is American travel writer Jerry Delfont, who is on an extended sojourn in Calcutta and is beset by anxieties that his writing talent has dried up — that he has a “dead hand,” writer’s block. The letter leads to a meeting with Mrs. Merrill Unger, another American residing in the city. Her son’s Indian friend Rajat awoke to find a boy’s corpse on the floor of his hotel room and fled without notifying the police. “My son might be implicated,” she frets.
Mrs. Unger (this stiffly formal title is retained throughout the book) is wealthy, attractive, intelligent, engaging and extrudes an aura that borders on seductive, and Delfont reluctantly agrees to investigate. A female employee of the hotel where the incident took place is beaten and dismissed after talking to Delfont. When they meet again later, she presents him with the dead boy’s hand (the rest of the corpse, she tells him, was dismembered and scattered).
Delfont continues his amateur investigation into the crime, disregarding caveats by Parvati, an attractive Bengali feminist who bitterly despairs at shackles imposed by her country’s society (“This is the most unromantic country on earth. . . We are a trapped and frustrated people”) and his own better judgment. He lets down his guard and finds himself under the sway of Mrs. Unger’s potent feminine mystique. She persuades him to accompany her on a trip to remote northeast India, where he finds himself like a modern-day Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” running a gantlet of horrors including exploitative child labor and an encounter with the pantheon of Hindu mythology, particularly Kali — the goddess after whom Calcutta was named and who is believed to embody both desire and liberation from desire.
Not only does Theroux make a cameo appearance in his own novel, Delfont takes an immediate dislike to him, complaining: “Theroux. . . knew me better than I wanted him to. I was not just uncomfortable, I was diminished, made smaller by his attention. He had helped himself to a slice of my soul.”
This is a master at work, and and he’s clearly having fun while dispensing the literary equivalent of a tantric massage.