Sunday, September 23, 2007

four legs good

Some novels stand out from the crowd based on their plot, some on their characters and Animal’s People is clearly the latter. Which isn’t to say the plot was a let down. Obviously a fictionalised account of the aftermath of a chemical disaster like that which occurred in Bhopal in the early 80’s - we encounter Khaufpur, an Indian community twenty years on, fighting to survive and get justice and compensation from the American ‘Kampani’ responsible for the leak.

‘Like drunks with arms round each others’ necks, the houses of the Nutcracker lurch along this lane…’

But Indra Sinha deftly avoids any danger of bogging his novel down with weighty issues by the masterful creation that is Animal, his central character. Born at the time of the chemical spill Animal is profoundly distorted, doubled over and forced to walk on all fours.

Animal takes us by the hand (and be careful to watch where he puts his other one!) and leads us through his world, often bending low, but sometimes climbing high like a manic monkey. We see through his eyes - just as we are the ‘Eyes’ who he directly addresses - his captive audience, unable to turn away even if we choose to. His world view is infectious, vile and hilarious in equal measures.

‘If you took a skeleton, chopped off one of its legs, removed half its teeth, dressed the result in rags and pissed all over it, this is the type of impression that Mr Saliq likes to give.’

He speaks his own language - a backwards mix of Indian, English and French, but this proves no obstacle to understanding him and the reader quickly slips into his speech pattern.

As we follow Animal through the twists and turns of his double dealing with everyone he encounters we come to learn a fundamental dilemma at the heart of his existence. The choice (which becomes a real possibility when an American doctor arrives in Khaufpur offering curative treatment) between his animal existence and potential normality. He regularly asserts his desire to be viewed as animal rather than human, and we can see that this attitude has probably accounted for his survival so far, a lack of self awareness easing the pain that full acknowledgement might bring.

‘…if I agree to be a human being I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape…’

But if Animal is to fulfil his main ambition - the desire for love in the long term, and sex in the foreseeable future - straightening up and embracing humanity might be his only option. And the call of the wild beast barely contained in his shorts is a loud one - indeed Animal easily wins the meaty battle of the penis begun by Anne Enright.

A number of the shortlist novels have struggled at their endings - most notably the McEwan and the Hamid - and while the final tying of the last few pages of Animals’ People might come as a little too ahhhh for some, the section immediately preceeding them gives all the ooohh I had come to hope for. Like an apocalyptic acid trip Animal shares his final sensory overdose, worn with a style that suits just like his kakadus.

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