I have to admire the ambition of Indra Das, a first time novelist, to take a genre concept as done to death as shapeshifters and transform them (pun well and truly intended) through a treatment that reads as literature rather than genre fiction. The fact that he succeeds is almost beside the point, because the attempt is beautiful all on its own; but there's enough here to keep book club regulars in conversation for years.
Das shares the goal of all 'serious novelists' (an annoying term if ever I've heard one): to explore the human condition. He chooses to do so by introducing a human being and a non-human apparently by accident, then tying them together with a mystery that keeps us reading. His enticing prose and the skill with which he weaves it is such that, when the mystery ceases to be, we're still as captured by the story as we ever were, even if we don't realise how many layers are being woven.
The human being is Alok Mukherjee, a middle-aged professor of history, who is introduced standing outside the tent of a baul mela, a sacred music festival, in a city park in Kolkata called Shaktigarh Math. A stranger approaches him and, almost immediately, makes an odd confession. 'I'm a werewolf,' he says. Well, a half-werewolf, but there's clearly a story here and Mukherjee is open to hearing it.
Here's where the layers begin, right at the outset.
The half-werewolf takes the professor into the mela tent where the bauls are singing loudly, but somehow tells him a story that's so immersive that Alok feels like he was there and can't shed the memory of it all. The story is about his part in a shapeshifter attack on a different baul mela, hundreds of years ago before Kolkata was built, when the area was swamp near villages that belong to the East India Company. He steals away a woman, who remains alive at the end of the story, though perhaps not for long, while his pack devour her travelling party.
The story the werewolf tells very obviously mirrors the story we're being told but there's a very deliberate choice of location too. Bauls are a mystic sect who wander the desert searching for their 'maner manus' or ideal being. This entire book could be seen as a similar search, undertaken by Prof. Mukherjee, the unnamed half-werewolf and further characters in the story who we haven't even met yet.
The framework Das chooses is an overt mirror. The half-werewolf tells stories for the professor to hear, reminding us of the broader story the professor is telling us within this book. Before long, these stories escape not just from the mouth of this creature itself but from a set of notebooks which he pays Alok to transcribe. Of course, what he reads in these ancient stories adds a level of background to what the half-werewolf tells him and the sum of these stories tells a new one.
This is clever stuff, using the cyclic art of storytelling to itself tell a story. However, it never appears too clever for its own good, a flaw that I often find in novels subtitled 'A Novel' that aim at being literature rather than whichever genre is applicable. This doesn't fall into that trap, but it nonetheless escapes any genre boundaries quickly and effectively.
The bulk of the book involves the transcribed story of Cyrah, a Mughal woman who catches the eye of a traveller. He's Fenris, a Norseman and shapeshifter who's travelling east as a sort of refugee. Many of his kind left Nürnberg in a pack to escape persecution by Christians, who were burning them as witches, but only three remained together until Mumtazabad, where they watch the Taj Mahal being built. The others are Makedon, an ancient Greek, and Gévaudan, a younger French shapeshifter.
Fenris sees Cyrah and rapes her, leaving her pregnant, an act forbidden not because shapeshifters acknowledge rape but because they see khrissals, their word for humans, as prey and food, not as sentient beings. That act sets up most of the rest of the book, which unfolds with the inevitability of legend but keeps surprising us, even when it shouldn't. Of course, we know where we will end up, but the journey is a particularly fascinating one, not only for us but literally for the professor who allows us to read about it.
I appreciated how simply Indra Das combined so many side streets of folklore into a single race. The Devourers of the title are shapeshifters, but they're known to different people as different things: djinn, ifreet, ghul, werwolf, kveldulf, vukodlak, even god. Other supernatural creatures are also explained into this new mythology with skill to leave us with two species of sentient creature: the human race and the shapeshifters.
And, with that, Das can explore what it means to be human. The Devourers are both more and less than us, but always apart. The way in which the author is able to alternate between scenes of beauty and brutality underlines just how different they are and how what we see in them, however human, isn't. It's a difficult thing to create something other than us, something truly different, but still have it interact with us in a meaningful way. Most of the vampires and werewolves we read about and watch are just humans with superpowers.
The Devourers are much more and much less than that, perhaps encapsulated in Fenris's rape of Cyrah, which to him is an act of love and creation but, of course, to her is something completely different. Das uses these differences superbly, illustrating humanity both in action and by comparison. His writing is also powerful and poetic, able to elicit our sympathy even for creatures doing unspeakably awful things, because it's simply in their nature.
This is unlike any novel I've ever read, a comment I expect to hear often as reviews start to creep online. It goes to places with which some may not be comfortable, whether human or inhuman places. There may be those who are disgusted as much as they're elevated, but that's much of the point of the stories in stories. Human history isn't the clean, polite creature that we often imagine it to be and it took us a long time to get to where we are. Humanity has changed over that time and it will continue to change. It's rare to find a work of fiction that reminds us of that and, in doing so, prompts us to ask ourselves, what makes us human today and why. ~~ Hal C F Astell