While not as heavily poached as its African cousin, the Asian elephant in India remains in danger of extinction. Simple pressures of space — fragmented habitat, broken migration routes, the proximity of farms — have driven it into competition with humans, despite its cultural importance. Elephant raids on crops and homes are now common, and up to 300 Indians are killed by elephants each year. In response, the elephants are often killed, too.
Tania James, who lives in Washington, D.C., situates her second novel in the moral murk of this conflict. Although the focus is primarily on poaching, the story’s true subject is larger and more profound: How do humans and animals — whose lives at times seem at cross purposes — coexist? That ambitious theme is overlaid with an experiment in form: In alternating sections, James’ novel is narrated in turn by a young farmer, named Manu, who is the brother of a poacher; Emma, one of a pair of young American filmmakers at work on a documentary about a wildlife rescuer; and a psychically damaged, homicidal elephant known as “the Gravedigger.”
The rural India described by these spiraling voices seems haunted, seeded with gods, ghosts and myth. Something appears to lurk just below the landscape, ready to erupt into sublimity if given the chance.
The feeling of opacity lingers especially in the elephant’s scenes. Descending into madness after his mother’s death, the Gravedigger seems “locked in a separate room,” doing things for “buried reasons … He perceived little of his situation.” This is almost as close to his mind as James can get, and it forces her to explain him, largely, from the outside: The Gravedigger’s scenes are, in part, told from the perspective of keepers and abusers; even here, his name is one chosen by those who hate and fear him.
Eventually, what emerges is a sense of the elephant-human relationship as essentially based on misunderstanding. As Emma wonders of her childhood parakeet: “Why couldn’t she feel a host of emotions, some of them beyond our explanation … like Wing Boredom or Flock Joy or Plummet Buzz, things we couldn’t feel and, therefore, could never understand?” That Emma recognizes and respects this mystery — and plans to end her film with a shot that conveys it visually — is a limitation and a gift. The same is true for James, who seems uncomfortable with the truth she’s glimpsed. There’s something awesome and necessary that occurs in the gulf of incomprehension between humans and other creatures, and James, while she leans toward it, isn’t always able — or perhaps willing — to jump.
As they work on their documentary, Emma and her filmmaking partner form a sort of parentheses around the novel’s central conflict. Beside the life-and-death struggle between villagers and elephant, their problems feel small: an ordinary human drama of ambition and compromise. But Emma’s affair with her documentary subject has the virtue of demonstrating the limits of objectivity and the seductive power of noble intent. But because these characters are mainly observers of the central misunderstanding, their chapters feel like a way to escape the dark heart of the story.
In giving the poachers a voice, James effectively depicts the forces that push and pull them, illuminating the hunters’ intimacy with the natural world and the economic and emotional exigencies that underlie their gruesome crimes. The usual relationships — hunter and hunted, watcher and watched — are overturned, examined. Yet as the novel moves, brisk as a thriller, toward the inevitable confrontation, the plotting grows over-determined, loaded with heavy-handed foreshadowing that, in one climactic scene, borders on the absurd (“Speaking of smells, I suppose the outhouse is not a topic of dignified discourse, but let me indulge because you will see the toilet and its placement would alter the course of our lives.”)
Indian elephants are at once victims, killers and gods and so the struggle is about more than revenge. “What kind of a place is this, where men dance on the back of a god?” one character asks. “A place where the gods dance on ours,” comes the reply. The Hindu goddess Kali comes to mind — she who is venerated as both mother and destroyer, dancing on a corpse. “Fear and worship are two sides of one coin,” as the environmentalist puts it. Yet worship, like fear, is in some sense a result of not knowing — of sharing the world with a companion you can’t understand. As a novelist, James may be handicapped by the innate mysteriousness of these animal-gods, but, perhaps for this reason, her elephants loom larger than life.
Jenny Hendrix reviewed this book for The Washington Post.