This book contains one novella ("Dr. Mukti"), measuring 130 pages and thus accounting for one half of the book, and four short stories (the “other tales of woe"), each about 30 pages in length, which make up the rest.
Dr Mukti is a middle-aged psychiatrist practicing at St Mungo hospital in central London. A second-generation Indian immigrant, he had a brief brush with western civilization in the guise of a blonde, english bride, but soon returned to the Indian ways. He married an Indian bride, and had his home filled with Indian relatives.
Will Self asserted his acclaim as a master of language even on the first page. He describes Mukti as a “man of modest achievement but vaulting ambition", a perfect description for a man who studies medicine to escape the pressure of his father’s expectations, but just ends up internalizing them. Mukti’s closest friend is David Elmley, hinge designer. The only thing bonding these two men is long acquaintance and mutual dislike.
When Dr Zack Busner, eminent psychiatrist at the nearby Heath hospital, starts referring patients of his to Mukti for a second consultation, Mukti’s initial appreciation quickly turns into distrust. He sees himself in a battle with the famous, older, Jewish colleague, wielding patients like weapons. Mukti becomes afraid that in the next round of the battle, Busner might be “wielding an assistant, or a nurse” instead of just a patiens – even though the duel proves more harmful to Busner than to Mukti, when Busner is asssaulted by one of Mukti’s patients.
The climax of the novella is Mukti’s investigation of a “satanistic blood-letting cult” – ostensibly a trap set by Busner in an attempt to dispense of his younger colleague. But in the final pages of the novella, and the final scenes of Mukti’s death, it is never quite clear whether his delusions are speaking out, or whether he was really the victim of an absurd, but deadly plot.
I already mentioned Self’s mastership of language – I am afraid that the same cannot be said for his plots. After finishing the novella, I was disappointed that the story was already at an end. I felt that there were enough themes in there to promise a full novel or two – Mukti’s ambitions, his Indian family, the loving but asexual relationship with his wife, the hinge-designer’s fate, and more. But instead Self chose to end the story quickly and abruptly, leaving the reader with a lot of loose ties. One is left with a feeling of vaulting ambition, but modest achievement – material that was destined for a novel, but only made it to a novella.
The four short stories fit their format much better. “161″ plays a young hoodlum against a pensioner, an encounter that results in an exchange, not of ideas but of spirits: While some of the pensioners sedentary life rubs off on the hoodlum, the pensioner is in turn invigorated by having a new influence on his life. “161″ is also one of the two stories in this book that do not end with a violent death.
“The five-swing walk” tells of a divorced father’s day out with his children. This story drops hints for the reader like breadcrumbs, or pieces of a puzzle, leaving him to piece them together and discover the true motives and motivations of the protagonist. A worthwhile read for fans of this kind of story.
“Conversations with Ord” is the story of a man’s planned departure from life, executed with a certain style and flourish.
The last story, “Return to the Planet of the Humans", picks up some themes from Self’s earlier novel “Great Apes". I’d previously read “Great Apes", a fascinatingly surreal novel about a painter who one day wakes up in a world where primates make up the dominant species, and where humans are kept as pets in the zoo – a new take on an old concept, but very well executed nonetheless. “Return to the Planet of the Apes” puts Simon Dykes, the painter, back
into the human world – after having been convinced of being an ape in “Great Apes". Now he suffers the same fate, just in reverse: He is an ape in a world of humans, again left in a world he does not understand and which does not understand him.
While the novella suffers from some problems of scope and plot, I enjoyed the short stories, and I think they are where Self’s talents shine.