Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Dead Hand: Making me think of Mother Teresa in a new light

A Dead Hand: A Crime in CalcuttaA Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, by Paul Theroux

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first discovered Paul Theroux back in my early 20s when I was living in Japan and traveling through Asia. Theroux wrote about his adventures on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Asia and Russia in The Great Railway Bazaar, the fascinating book that launched the travel memoir industry. I also read Riding the Iron Rooster about Theroux's travels in China. Theroux is a keen observer of different cultures, traditions, and people. Back in those days, Mike read his novel Saint Jack, but I do not recall reading it. Theroux also wrote the book The Mosquito Coast, probably the most famous of his works because of the movie.

So I approached A Dead Hand with some experience of Theroux. His insightful observations and colorful descriptions of India were the best part of this book. It's the story of a travel journalist, Jerry, who is slumming in Calcutta...waiting for the next freebie hotel stay and experiencing writer's block (one reason for the novel's title). He receives a letter from a wealthy American woman, Mrs. Unger, who has adopted many of India's customs for her own. (She wears a sari and henna tattoos, practices tantric and sensual massage, and eats only Ayurvedic food.) A friend of her son had woken up in a hotel room one morning and discovers a dead body on the floor. He had panicked and run away. She professes admiration for Jerry's writing and because of this, asks him to investigate the situation, presumably to clear the boy's name.

He soon enters into an odd romantic relationship with her, whereby she summons him when he fits into her schedule and shares only tiny, strange tidbits of her life. Even though she claimed the investigation of the dead body was her primary purpose for contacting him, she soon seduces him into being her devotee. Jerry becomes completely besotted with her, and we have pages and pages ad nauseum where he writes about how pure and saintly she is. Blah.

Mrs. Unger (always called by this name) arrived in India to work with Mother Teresa at the Missionaries of Charity. She hates Mother Teresa and badmouths her to Jerry. (For this reason, many have called this book anti-Catholic.) (And now a little diversion about M. Teresa...)
What I was not aware of before reading this book was that Mother Teresa was a highly controversial figure. She collected millions of $ for her charity, but very little of the collected funds went to help the sick and poor. Nearly all of it was given to the Vatican. She did what she did for her beloved church. (And as many have written, those funds given for the specific purpose to help the poor and destitute have instead been used to defend pedophile priests.) Mother Teresa believed that to be poor is to be holy. She did not allow her sisters or other workers to spend money on improving their own lives or the lives of the poor and sick. Google searches for "myth of Mother Teresa will yield all sorts of disenchanted stories and experiences, such as this one
Mother Teresa was also heavily anti-abortion and anti-birth control and reproductive technologies. Much of what's on the internet is hardly objective or from respected authorities, but here's an article in the New Statesman about the squalid conditions in her homes. I certainly will think differently of her from now on.
It's ironic that Mrs. Unger criticizes Mother Teresa, because she turns out to be far worse than the tiny of course, the reader could see coming a mile away.

I was not very impressed with the plot of this meandered all over the place, and some parts were more interesting than others. On the pages and pages where Jerry blathers on about what a saint Mrs. Unger is, or about how he's able to write again, I felt bored to the point of scanning. As apparently is typical for Theroux, he includes a scene with himself in the book. This is a bit weird, and if it were a better book, or if I could understand the point of the scene better, I would have accepted it more. I believe that Theroux meant this book as an indictment on white rich people dabbling in developing countries, swooping in to help the poor and destitute...while actually hurting them. He is missing the point, though, by ignoring all of the reputable and indeed-helpful white people working in the developing world, providing sustenance and support to millions of people.

Theroux needs to hit the road again and go back to writing nonfiction. Or maybe he's just past his prime.

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