Have been reading R K Narayan recently, both some short stories and the famous - almost, to a certain group of aficionados, the iconic - The Man-Eater of Malgudi. There is a tiger in this story, but that isn't the man-eater. It is instantly clear that you are in the hands of a man of great talent, and a man who has thought deeply and seen inwardly a great deal. And yet, and yet ...
Malgudi is a small, archetypical Indian town, and the main character of the book, a small time (and rather unbusinesslike) printer called Nataraj exists in a small, comfortable way there, totally absorbed in the trivia of his work and his tea drinking visitors. He is utterly ineffectual, and while this gives him charm - and perhaps the love of the gods, who can tell - it can be frustrating for the active reader, who longs to shake him and tell him to pay attention, and to get a grip.
But Nataraj doesn't, and so he finds himself unwilling to turn away Vasu, a circus strongman turned taxidermist, who proposes himself as a lodger, albeit one who brings worry and even fear rather than rent. Vasu creates all sorts of difficulties for Nataraj, culminating in his threat to kill a temple elephant that Nataraj has been the means of saving from illness. Needless to say, the elephant is spared, and justice done, although unofficially. Nataraj, amongst others, is suspected of a serious crime, and even he seems to doubt his innocence or his friends' loyalties in this difficult period: I saw myself as others saw me and was revolted by the picture.
But all is well, and the printing - a special magenta colour is used on fruit juice labels to provoke thirst - goes on as we leave our hero restored to the bosom of his wife and the chatter of his good for nothing friends. This is all supposed to be very funny, and I could see that it was - but somehow it didn't really make me laugh, and indeed at times I found it tiresome. I don't quite know why was this was, unless I must put it down to my slight prejudice against fiction from or about India (I know, I know, this is a ridiculous and unfounded prejudice). Perhaps you will get the joke - I think Narayan is worth the effort, and I will read the short stories, and be interested to see what Cornflower has to say about another Malgudi story, The Painter of Signs.