For Western readers and writers, India qualifies as a foreign country in the fullest meaning of the word. John Irving uses the “author’s notes” to describe the subcontinent as “obdurately foreign,” then admits that he does not “know India” and explains that A Son of the Circus “isn’t about India.” Instead, he points out, it is “a novel set in India—a story about an Indian (but not an Indian), for whom India will always remain an unknown and unknowable country.”
It has been said that there are many Indias, that India is reinvented each time someone attempts to write about it. Certainly many have tried to capture the essence of this “unknowable country” through English-language fiction and travel writing. In the twentieth century, India has produced an impressive number of novelists who write in English, each interpreting the country differently; numerous British writers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have also found the subcontinent a rich setting for fiction or an intriguing source for travel books. Still, Irving—better known in his previous seven novels for an exact depiction of life on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States—moves into the forefront among American writers by taking India as a setting and addressing the massive Asian migration to North America in the late twentieth century.
Although some critics have questioned the authenticity of Irving’s India, A Son of the Circus convincingly re-creates Bombay, where most of the action unfolds. Such faithful rendering of place has always been a strength in Irving’s work. This teeming city of thirteen million or so, set on the western coast and called the “Gateway to India,” boldly displays the country’s dramatic contrasts: the wealth, the poverty; the spirituality that turns the real into the unreal, the human degradation, violence, and cruelty; the elegant high-rises and boulevards, the filthy streets lined with rows of squalid apartment buildings; the modern technology, the inefficiency that too often generates unintentional comedy.
Such is the backdrop Irving has built for his huge cast of characters, who on the surface act out a classic mystery story. Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, on one of his extended visits to Bombay, finds himself caught up in an investigation of a serial murder case that started some twenty years earlier, during another of his stays in India. Unwittingly, he had then become involved by treating one of the survivors of a still-unsolved murder spree on a beach in Goa, a resort area south of Bombay. Born and reared in India, then educated in Europe, Daruwalla took Canadian citizenship and established a medical practice in Toronto. In the process, he has turned into a “nowhere man,” as Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya described the main character, an Indian for whom London was never truly home, in her novel The Nowhere Man (1972). This theme of displacement lies at the heart of A Son of the Circus.
To frame the theme, Irving, always an able storyteller, constructs a complex plot that reveals the diversity of Indian life. The extended roster of characters embraces members of the professional class, prostitutes—including transvestites and transsexuals—film stars and directors, Catholic priests, bureaucrats, circus performers (midgets in particular), servants, Western drug dealers, and tourists in search of spirituality or hashish. All these characters, no matter how minor, emerge as distinctive personalities. They gain individuality through such devices as a repeated gesture, an odd physical characteristic, an attitude they manifest through subtle actions, peculiarities of speech, or some other detail that is evident but never patently obvious.
Mr. Sethna, a faithful servant in the exclusive club where Dr. Daruwalla spends his spare time, serves as a prime example of a well-defined minor character. Although peripheral to the main action, Mr. Sethna cannot be ignored; his supercilious attitude and related actions turn him into a comic figure reminiscent of the snobbish Indian servant who parroted English ways during the Raj, when England controlled India. Irving’s characters frequently manifest pretensions and human folly, yet the author does not undercut or treat them in a contemptuous way.
A comic strain runs throughout A Son of the Circus. Although the comedy often derives from the oddities of Indian life or character, the observations and situations are neither condescending nor drawn from Western prejudices about India. For that matter, Irving also satirizes the negative way foreigners sometimes react to India’s strangeness and its ability to frustrate outsiders.
With a setting so exotic, characters so mixed, and a comic flavor, A Son of the Circus is an engaging novel as it follows Dr. Daruwalla on his bumbling way in and around Bombay. While he no longer...