Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Book Review: The Guide by R.K. Narayan

I've been thinking about restarting the evening book club a lot lately, which has made me remember the last one I led. R.K. Narayan's The Guide was the first book we read together, and it remained one of the best discussions we had--mostly because the group members couldn't come to a consensus on what happened. If you read my review, you might see why we had trouble agreeing. (I, by the way, take the saint position.)

The Guide opens with Raju leaving prison. He goes to the barber, gets a haircut and shave, and has no idea what to do afterward. He was once India’s most famous tour guide. He was then the famous companion of the dancer Nalini. But having burned both of these bridges and defamed himself, his prospects are limited and his options few. Because he has nowhere else to go, Raju takes up residence at the local temple, because no one can really force him to leave.

It is here that Raju meets Velan, someone "of the stuff disciples are made of." Velan recognizes Raju as a guru. Raju tries to correct Velan’s perception, but when Velan and his fellow villagers start caring for Raju’s needs, he decides to play the part. He offers mystical advice and spouts impossible prophecies in an attempt to make himself sound legitimate. The villagers regard him as a saint and continue to provide him with food.

But when a drought comes, spoiling the crops and killing the livestock, the villagers are at a loss for what to do—until they remember Raju’s own prophecy that a holy man would fast and stand knee-deep in water each day, praying for rain. Due to a miscommunication and a firm belief in Raju’s guru status, the villagers stop bringing Raju food, assuming he is the fulfillment of his own prophecy.

Regretting his prophecy and faced with starvation and doubt, Raju realizes there is no way out but to tell the truth. He reveals his story to Velan, cataloguing all his misdeeds that disqualify him from sainthood.

Liar. Adulterer. Thief. Forger. Raju has played all these parts, the last of which resulted in his prison sentence. After Raju’s confession, Velan’s faith is unshaken, and Raju is forced to decide: save himself, or give his life in the fulfillment of a potentially bogus prophecy.

Narayan's storytelling is simple. The Guide is not a hard book to read, and it is a very enjoyable story. But the simple phrasing cloaks a deeper meaning, which causes the reader to reflect upon the story and his own life.

The bulk of The Guide is Raju’s narrating his life to Velan. Because Raju is telling his own story and he has an obvious purpose for doing so, the reader is forced to question the veracity of his account. But Narayan’s alternating between Raju’s first-person account and third-person narration adds balance to the story and allows the reader more evidence on which to base conclusions. The reader gets Raju’s personal view, focusing on his own sin, but also the view of the villagers who sincerely believe in his sainthood. Especially at the plot’s climax, Narayan shows rather than tells, which gives a more vivid picture of Raju’s transformation.

Narayan does a fantastic job of making the reader both love and hate his main character. It is clear from the story that Raju has many talents, but his talents (without being coupled with responsibility) lead him down all the wrong paths. It is only when his "disciple" has faith in him despite his faults that he is able to take responsibility for his actions. But then the question arises: Was the transformation genuine, or was it only self-deception?

Raju plays the part of several guides: tourist guide, manager to a famous dancer, and spiritual guide. But his motives in playing each part and his knowledge of each field are speculative. Can the reader trust Raju's own account? He calls himself a compulsive liar. Could it be that Raju has spent so much of his life lying to others that he can no longer discern truth from lies in his own life?

The book ends abruptly, without resolution of the main plot, leaving the reader to speculate the results of Raju’s prophecy and transformation. Narayan’s choice is in some ways annoying, but it highlights that the point of the book is not the resolution of a plot but the metamorphosis (or self-deception) of a man.

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