Review: Hangdog Souls

Hangdog Souls, Marc Joan. London: Deixis Press, 2022.

Summary: A fugitive English soldier in southern India makes a Faustian bargain winning endless life at the cost of countless others over three centuries.

John Saunders is a fugitive English soldier in the Dravidian highlands of southern India as the British colonials are invading. He has a beautiful wife and an adorable son, who has captured the eye of the corrupt ruler with a mysterious machine in the dome of his castle complex. John is feigning that he is Portuguese and has brought seeds of eucalyptus trees that he hopes to establish in the highlands, making his fortune. As the British lay siege, he plans an escape for himself and huis family, but is found out by the ruler, who offers him a Faustian bargain, to become the “bridge” for souls, offering them a better world for their lives.

His trees are saved, and recur throughout the succeeding vignettes. But his wife and son are not. But John cannot die, even from a wound that nearly beheads him. He must live with his shame while ushering others to their fate. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes over 300 years. A priest burdened with the death of his wife Emma who encounters John. A butterfly enthusiast seeking the Black Papilio, and finding so much more. A functionary of the Sarpal Tea Company sent to the Kalisholi estates to investigate accounts ends up offering himself to a snake at a time when the local gods demand five garlands, five lives. A tourist glimpsing the mysterious woman in a blue sari, An embalmer who must create images of three gods using human corpses. A boy indentured to an uncle who immolates himself after listening to John’s story.

On it goes until three hundred years later, a Keralan particle physicist, Chandy John, involved in an experiment that has driven the previous scientist mad. Will he succumb to the burden of his own losses and griefs, having lost his wife in a tragic accident or will he break the cycle?

The book revolves around the question: What weight can balance the death of an innocent? How much grief must John bear for the grief he causes, and for how long? When will the scales be balanced? John is able to do what he does because of the griefs others bear. The appeal of escape through death, perhaps atoning for one’s guilt and shame. But the question makes us wonder if in fact whether there is any human counterweight to the death of an innocent?

I’ve seen this book classified in the horror genre. It seemed to me to have elements of horror, historical fiction, and magical realism about it. I’m not sure I know what it is. For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet as story after story unfolded, variations on a theme I found myself wondering how or whether this would all end, and drawn into the storytelling to find out.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006).

Summary: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers.

Salman Rushdie is a native of India of Muslim descent most often known for his book The Satanic Verses, the publication of which resulted in a fatwa calling for his assassination. Since 2000, he has lived in New York City. This novel, his second, brought him to the attention of the literary world and was awarded the Booker Prize and was selected one of the hundred best novels of all time by the Modern Library.

The central figure, Saleem Sinai, is narrating his life to Padma, “the pickle woman” who is taking care of him. Central to his life story is that he was born at the stroke of midnight at the moment India gained its Independence. He sees himself as a twin with India, and that his experiences and actions are intertwined with that of the country. His life and family dysfunctions and travails parallel those of India. In his personal history, he gets caught up in the Indo-Pakistan wars and Bangladeshi independence.

He and the other babies born in the first hour of Independence all have unusual powers. Saleem’s is the ability to telepathically link them together in the “Midnight Children’s Conference” where they deliberate how they might use their powers in their young country. The hopeful promise of these children is not attained, and one, Shiva, who was switched with Saleem at birth is a destroyer, symbolized by his powerful knees, while Saleem’s sensitivities are symbolized by his nose that can sniff out not only smells but dispositions and longings.

Rushdie writes in the genre of magical realism, similar to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Noses, knees, serpents, and impotent men recur through the book. When Saleem’s wife goes into labor, at the beginning of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, she labors thirteen days, until the emergency lifts. In all of this, the life story of Saleem is mystically linked with the nation.

The challenge in reading this work is both remembering this connection and understanding the history of India during the time spanned by the novel (1947 to 1979). One wishes, particular in the newer edition, that it would have been annotated for those not deeply acquainted with this history. Rushdie himself observes that western readers tend to read this novel as fantasy while readers from India see the book as almost a history.

We trace the central figure from the hopefulness and growing awareness of boyhood to a growing sense of pathos, sadness and, indeed impotence, perhaps reflecting the frustration of India’s hopes, particularly during the Indira Gandhi rule. A life story, that of its own seems sad, and at points dysfunctional, in fact becomes commentary for the early years of India’s statehood. Sadly, this narrative could be the story of many post-colonial states. But Saleem has a son, and perhaps a new generation…. Perhaps.