For most novelists whose first novel is a raging success, the second one is a tough act to follow. Stephen Kelman’s first novel Pigeon English was highly acclaimed and nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and his second novel, Man on Fire, is in many ways a clear follow-up. Like his earlier work, it is yet another exploration of the meeting of two cultures, inspired by real life events. But whereas his first novel was based on a murder in a complex multi-cultural London council estate, this one is set in India and follows the fictionalised alter ego of an extreme sportsman, Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak, famous for the numerous world records he holds.
The story behind the creation of the novel is as interesting, if not more, as the book itself. Kelman was searching for a subject for his next novel when he chanced upon Nayak on television, as the note at the end of the book detailing how the writing was inspired by the real life persona of Bibhuti Nayak (BB in the book), also known as the ‘Bruce Lee’ of India, tells us. Spotting Nayak on the ‘Paul Merton in India’ show, he was fascinated by the man’s apparent immunity to pain. The fascination resulted in a correspondence, which in turn resulted in a book, which Nayak has personally blessed.
Although the main events in the novel are the product of Kelman’s imagination, the fictional BB’s backstory is taken from Nayak’s own life; and Kelman has used many of his actual quotes such as, “Pain is a choice. I have chosen not to accept it”, or his belief that he is above pain by the order of God: “I am under the protection of the Almighty” … “I could go into the road now and a car could strike me and I would walk away without one scratch.”
Stephen Kelman’s second novel has in its depths the search for dignity and meaning in human experience, but fails to come up to the mark he made previously
As eccentric as he sounds, Kelman has managed to capture Nayak’s persona and create a fascinating and distinctive voice in the character of BB. In fact BB’s voice is much more distinct and natural than that of the other protagonist, John Lock. Lock is a middle-aged Englishman escaping to India in the hope of salvation, a man suffering from an illness and an uneasy past. He is a lettings agent, whose marriage has been hobbled by the loss of a baby and who, as the novel reveals, has a secret. He is a lost soul, suffering from cancer and the after-effects of a marriage gone wrong and has come to India to seek redemption. But instead of the usual holy mystics he wants to find solace in helping BB, a record holder in inflicting self-pain by inviting kicks from friends and strangers alike, or performing one-handed push-ups in six-digit figures, to set another new record. BB thrives on pain and its endurance. That is his high. In contrast, Lock is the exact opposite of his attention-seeking, self-absorbed hero, blending into the background, lacking confidence and overthinking or “introspecting” every action. Having fled the quiet desperation of his earlier life in the UK in the hope of dodging a terrible secret he cannot share with his wife, he pins all his hope on helping BB reach his goal of breaking 50 baseball bats on his body. Somehow, Lock is convinced that helping a man in this feat of extreme endurance and ill-advised machismo will help him rewrite a brave end to a life poorly lived.
The narration is split into these two voices. However compared to BB’s strong, self-assured and distinct voice, Lock as a narrator comes across as flat and voyeuristic.
The most touching portrayal of all in the book is perhaps that of BB’s wife who seems to watch mournfully from the sidelines, sick with worry and with mounting animosity towards this white man who has come to further encourage her already misguided husband. She seems to continuously elude her husband’s much-vaunted sympathy and her role as the long-suffering wife has Kelman at his tragicomic best. There is a line where she declares: “I do not want him to be a symbol … I just want him to be alive”. That pretty much sums up her character.
In contrast, Lock’s wife Ellen, whom he has left behind but whose memory he evokes constantly, is anything but a pushover. The complexities of his marriage, which when contrasted with the simple stoic forbearance of BB’s marriage add to his dilemma; there is also the guilt that follows when things with BB don’t go as planned.
As the novel progresses Lock settles into BB’s family, learning the Indian ways. Even the wife thaws and BB’s son whom he calls “Jolly boy” also takes a liking to him, as does she. However, thanks to dramatic license, all does not go well and Lock finds himself at BB’s hospital bedside willing him to live. He had been helping BB set a new world record in a bid to seal a deal that would raise him from poverty to celebrity status. The final blow comes from a well-wisher; no guesses who. But will BB survive? That is the meat on the bone.
At first glance the novel appears an India-by-the-numbers kind of book. The saffron-robed monks, the man on a bed of nails immune to pain (in this case a sportsman addicted to extreme endurance), the wistful descriptions of Mumbai, the pathetic fallacy of sultry heat and seductive monsoons, the colourful turbans and fluttering saris, the fascination and disgust of eating with one’s hand, the poverty, the filth and of course the acceptance of it by the people who dwell in it. It’s only when you are deep into the novel that you realise that there is more depth to it than the shallow fascination of a white man’s India. But if one perseveres, what appears at first a slightly dated attempt at capturing the exotic is actually a book about the search for dignity and meaning in human experience.
However, the language is heavily sensorial at places, almost burying the drama in the self-indulgent imagery. Also, although Kelman is an expert at tragicomedy and the book is anything but a sob story, it lacks the sharpness of his earlier work. At times the narration dulls too much and slips almost into farce, so pronounced are the caricatures of lower-middle-class Indians and the bumbling Englishman. There is a sprinkling of humour such as the scene when Lock asks the Sikh photographer (whom he refers to as the “Turbanator”) whether different coloured turbans were like different coloured karate belts, awarded according to abilities. But it is upstaged by the melodrama. For example the scene where Lock gives away his shoes to a bent old man waiting for the monsoons is a clichéd fit of a dying man’s overdone sentimentality.
Similarly, the pathetic fallacy of the monsoons, the heat, and India in general, e.g., “[Navi Mumbai] is sucking India’s marrow from it’s bone,” or old Bombay: “a place where death spills songlike from every doorway and untapped dreams rise like smoke from the rubbish fires and rat holes”,and other such sentimentality sprinkled throughout the book seems formulaic and forced. The slow pace and the non-linear narrative puts further distance between the reader and the page.
In that sense, the novel fails to evoke the same fish out of water, discovering a new culture, kind of empathy that Pigeon English did. Although an entertaining read, Man on Fire lacks not just the pace but also the mystery of Kelman’s first novel, a book also about an outsider navigating a foreign culture.
Unlike the Ghanaian-Londoner lingo of his earlier work, which built up a raw sentiment as the young boy struggled to make sense of a new world, the overdone lyricism and exotica of Lock’s India as he tries to squeeze out the wisdom of the East in tamed tigers, thrashing monsoons and fire-eaters, and force beauty in the overflowing gutters of India, is distracting instead of engaging.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two books, but it is also unavoidable. The novel in question lacks freshness. It feels uncomfortably familiar and Kiplish, instead of Slum Dog and Rushdieish, as was probably intended. There are some good observations about the Indian way of life but there is also a lot of chunkiness and an awkward seriousness that overshadows the maturity of the prose. However, Bibhuti Nayak’s character is a fascinating subject and Kelman has managed to capture his voice effectively. His unshakable self-belief and his journey through extreme pain is a reason in itself to read this book.
The reviewer holds a Masters degree from Oxford University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She teaches Feminist Fiction at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
Man on Fire
By Stephen Kelman
Bloomsbury Circus, UK