The reviewers sound exhausted but impressed by "Sacred Games," Vikram Chandra's 916-page tome on the heavies of Mumbai. Here's Paul Gray in this weekend's NYT Book Review, saying "you may find “Sacred Games” as hard to put down as it is to pick up":
"Those who plunge into the novel soon find themselves thrashing in a sea of words (“nullah,” “ganwars,” “bigha,” “lodu,” “bhenchod,” “tapori,” “maderchod”) [NOTE: SepiaMutiny.com and the New York Daily News had fun with the fact that the NYT didn't seem to realize that it just printed, in Hindi, some absolutely nasty swear words.] and sentences (“On Maganchand Road the thela-wallahs already had their fruit piled high, and the fishsellers were laying out bangda and bombil and paaplet on their slabs”) unencumbered by italics or explication. A “selective glossary” appears at the back of the book, but consulting it is more troublesome than simply forging ahead. Context and repetition can work wonders, though, and those who persevere will discover that what one character describes as “some knocked-together mixture, some Bombay blend” of English and Hindi, begins to make sense — especially the naughty bits — in the same way that Anthony Burgess’s futurist Russian-English in “A Clockwork Orange” eventually becomes comfortably ho-hum."
More on that from SAJAer Sandip Roy, in his review in the SF Chronicle:
"[The book] does all this without explaining itself. Many Indian writers have found acclaim in the West, but they have been accused of playing tour guides to exotic cultures. The white man's gaze has become the brown writer's burden as novelists try to explain themselves in a way the West can digest -- and market.
Here's a review from Newsday, by Tom Beer:
Perhaps readers who aren't on deadline won't object to the excesses. "Sacred Games" is one of those books you immerse yourself in, a passport to an alien world and, like life, you imagine it could go on forever. It envisions a world - an underworld, actually - that is complete, persuasive and startlingly original.
The book appears to have industry backing. Booksense calls it the #1 pick for January:
Seven years in the making, "Sacred Games" is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh— and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.
...Drawing inspiration from the classics of nineteenth-century fiction, mystery novels, Bollywood movies and Chandra's own life and research on the streets of Mumbai, "Sacred Games" evokes with devastating realism the way we live now but resonates with the intelligence and emotional depth of the best of literature.
Publishers Weekly has a mixed review, generally positive but also a bit weary:
Chandra, who's won prizes and praise for his two previous books,Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay , spent seven years writing this 900-page epic of organized crime and the corruption that spins out from Mumbai into the world of international counterfeiting and terrorism, and it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive.
New York puts it in a group of six books about which the magazine asks: "Is This Book Worth Getting?: A no-frills buyer's guide to the just-published fiction shelf." It's answer: "Buy It."
Go ahead, call this 900-page epic a Mumbai Godfather. But it’s also the ultimate subcontinental noir. That Inspector Sartaj Singh gives in to corruption simply makes him practical. It’s in the air, mixed with the tar and tandoori and gunsmoke that smell like home to him and to his superbly rendered foe, the arch-gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, whose narration of his own rise and fall is the meat of the book. But even as Chandra digresses to depict the horrors of partition, he stays in the skin of his characters, never resorting to DeLillo-ish atmospherics. That’s probably why he slyly includes a cast-of-characters list but no glossary—so for Western readers, half the suspense comes from figuring out what the hell apradhi, chutiya, and bhai mean. That can slow things down, and the ticking-atomic-bomb plot is a little pat, but any book that makes palpable a very foreign city, explores deep moral questions, and teaches you lots of dirty Hindi is well worth lugging around.
The New Yorker has run a long (at 2,394 words) review by author Pankaj Mishra. It's worth reading the review to enjoy Mishra's own prose, but the review, which praises Chandra often, seems to complain that it's mere crime fiction, rather than "literature." Here's the last para:
For we expect from literary novels with large claims on our time satisfactions much deeper than those regularly available at the movies; and the elaborately contrived plot of “Sacred Games” seems finally to offer a vision no more compelling than the romantic brutality and cynicism of hardboiled crime fiction. Chandra’s moral imagination seems too much in thrall to the kind of sensationalist fantasy underpinning disaster movies that manipulate terror in an age obsessed with terror—the fantasy that, as Susan Sontag defined it in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” helps many people to cope with the twin threat of “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror” by offering “an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings.” Unlike those novelists who have much to say but lack the necessary craft, Chandra seems to be able to do anything. His violent naturalism superbly renders the disorder of the contemporary world. Yet it is unable to transcend an equally pervasive intellectual and spiritual complacency. Conceived on a grand scale, “Sacred Games” leads us to expect more than self-sufficient virtuosity from a writer who possesses the rare, prodigious power to make literature.
Know of other reviews? Post them below. Or add your comments!
See SAJAforum's collection of Vikram Chandra's book tour dates across the U.S.