The Devourers by Indra Das

I heard about this from a friend, thought it sounded good for my attempt to read more books by non-Western authors, bought it and it promptly sat on my shelf for a couple of years.

Alok, a young history professor in Kolkata, meets a man who claims to be half werewolf, who starts to tell him a story that completely mesmerises him.  They meet up again and the stranger gives Alok two manuscripts to transcribe that tell the rest of the story.

Set in the time of the Mughals, when the various European nations were just starting to trade with India, the manuscripts tell the story of the strangers parents – a centuries-old werewolf from France, and a lower-class Indian woman.  This story is interwoven with the story of the relationship between Alok and the stranger. It’s violent and often unpleasant (the stranger is a product of rape), but it certainly kept me wanting to know what happens next.  The description of the European werewolves is pretty viscerally icky.  (A large group of them came East about the time of the crusades in search of a supposed tribe of Indian werewolves in the Sunderbans).

Apart from the narrative, there’s a fair bit going on here.  The book is set up in the format of the “frame tale”, something that 18th century Orientalists were convinced was the hallmark of “oriental” works (such as the Thousand and One Nights) and was used by various early Romantic poets to add an exotic flavour to their work.  I think there’s a lot about the Indian reaction to colonialism I’m not getting.  (Das grew up in India but as an adult has lived in the USA and Canada).  The European traders are seen as marginal and not a threat.  The protagonist is quite Westernised and doesn’t speak the dialect of the area where his family are from.  Despite being engaged at the beginning of the novel, Alok is attracted mainly to men and he has to work that out for himself.

There’s enough threads to this book that it could have been a mess, but I felt that it all came together quite well, and that it is well written and paced, and a worthwhile read even with all the unpleasantness.

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