Still, it's unfair to ignore an entire body of work based on a few hastily formed impressions, and it's possible that there are writers out there who are doing great work that I'm missing out on, so I've decided to devote the weekend to checking out the new Indian fiction scene (only cheating a little by dipping into Coetzee's tantalizing new book on the side). I think of it as a sort of penance, a sort of literary Lent, with the prospect of reading The Enchantress of Florence (which, from all accounts, is a genuine resurrection) to follow.
It's probably unfortunate, therefore, that the first book I happened to pick was this thing called Shifting Sands by Dominique Varma (Penguin, 2004) a book so excruciatingly painful it makes having your teeth extracted seem like a day at the spa. I've read some bad prose in my time but Ms. Varma's writing is so viscously awful it makes Kahlil Gibran read like Hemingway. Consider:
"The tranquil camels glide between thorny bushes unmindful of their prickly barbs, leaving in the sand the imprint of their undulating footsteps. A greater peace in the world than this landscape of yellow dust glowing with the iridiscent orange of the receding dusk is impossible to find. The desert acquires a wealth of colours and thick forests of clouds cast their tormented shadows over the wavy dunes."
"Leaning over the parapet, Eliya contemplated the cascading terraces descending towards the dunes pierced with trees falling over the horizon. The bitter tea turned lukewarm on the guardrail, and her senses, sharpened by the ardent fever of the sands, wrenched languorously under the spell that had held her in its thrall right from the very first time she'd felt its poignant harmony."
or this, my favorite of all, describing the anxiety of a group of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp:
"they were all going berserk, ready to give up this derisory thread of life which sometimes seemed so precious that they would have gone down on their knees to beg it be left unbroken, to save even a tiny fragment of this fabric which was unravelling before their eyes, like a carpet whose framework was being eaten by moths. And the invisible insects nibbling at the woollen threads masticated with quiet equanimity, abandoning one edge of the carpet to attack, from inside, a more solid thread that took their fancy."
I'm not making this up. Honest. And this is a published novel - not some faux-poetic little brochure from the Rajasthan tourism department, not the blurb to some Hindustani Classical recording, not some cheesy manual from some ashram or the other - but a real novel published by Penguin whose "evocative prose" we are told "is an ode to the indestructible spirit of the human race."
And it's not like the book makes up in ideas what it lacks in style. The plot, such as it is, is a hodge-podge of storylines, each one parboiled to the point where it slips into bathos. If we're not in some commando comic version of a concentration camp, hearing about the Nazi's devious plan to turn lead into gold with the help of a crackpot old Jew obsessed with Babylon, we're sharing the oh-so-languorous sighs of the dancer Eliya, a kind of Madame Bovary meets Anarkali character, with the emotional depth of your average Mills and Boons heroine, who chooses to live (and ultimately die) in the desert fortress of Neemera for the sake of Love  (the object of her affection being, of course, a Rajput prince of the Siyaram suitings variety - are you gagging yet?), or we're hanging about in Paris with a trio of dubious researchers who seem to spend their time in a haze of sentiment and amorous intrigue and whose 'intellectual' speculations have all the scholarly coherence of your average undergraduate thesis. Why these stories belong together (except for the tenuous artifice of a family connection) or why it was necessary for Ms. Varma to intersperse them in the manner of an Inarritu film are questions I won't even bother to ask. Let's just say that when a novel is so bad that it leaves you physically nauseous you have to wonder what the editors were thinking. If all the other books I've picked up are even half as bad as this one it's going to be a long, long weekend.
Meanwhile, in other news, don't you just love Anthony Lane. Can you imagine a more damning comment on a film than comparing it unfavorably to Funny Face?
 Well, technically a random selection from what new Indian writing has made its way to the UPenn library - but if anything, I would think this biases my sample towards a more favorable view of what's being published.
 Ms. Varma writes:
"Should we not vow never to hate someone we have once loved, even if he becomes hateful? Out of respect for that beautiful love which was once our reason for living, and which so quickly becomes our reason for dying. Dying for love is perhaps the only desirable death, because it snatches us from the banality of dying from old age, accident, sickness. At least we know why we are dying. Because we had believed we had seen the abysses of heaven open up before us."