Narayan Wagle, the young editor of Kantipur Daily (who seems to love solitary loitering), is one of few Nepali journalists I admire. I have been an avid reader of his gossip column Coffee Guff which is marked by gift of phrases. I’m also a fan of his graphic reporting specially from remote corners of Nepal. Simplicity, I must say, is the hallmark of Wagle’s writing.
But, as I waded through the pages of Wagle’s debut novel Palpasa Cafe, I concluded that it’s just an extended version of Coffee Guff.
Let’s begin from the beginning. The novel starts with a metafictional note. The narrator, a journalist, is waiting for his protagonist to show the manuscript before sending it for printing. But then, Drishya (sight, literally) gets arrested. Chapter One opens in Goa, a perfect place for love, it seems! Here a painter falls in love with his admirer (a US returned, amateur documentary maker), Palpasa. Looks like a collision of two art forms.
Let me take a break from storytelling. In fact, if you have read the novel, you know the story and if you haven’t, you don’t want to know, for it spoils your curiosity. Anyway, the story goes, as life goes on. But two things are crucial: how it is told and what the content is. Wagle obviously is a formalist. He prefers form over content. Nevertheless, the story weaves both the complexities of ongoing conflict and its consequences.
But, like the protagonist’s shattered dream of opening Palpasa Cafe in the idyllic hills, the novel seems promising in the outset while ends up in the maze of it’s own making. Conflict is only the backdrop where an artist searches meaning of his love-life. But despite having an encyclopedic knowledge of nature and painting, Wagle fails to portray Drishya as an artist. Like Wagle himself, he sounds more like a journalist; so he is an alter ego of its creator. The novel is oddly replete with female characters (Palpasa, Christina, Phulan, Jemina, grandma etc) whereas males are not only mysteriously absent but are also nameless and faceless in the narrative.
The novel, however, has an abundance of repartees; the author tries to twist every conversation, rather artificially, to a fresh meaning. Flipsides aside, like many other readers (esp. males) out there, I too identified myself with Drishya and indulged in a rapt reverie of loving some Palpasa.
In terms of narration, he is akin to his painter-protagonist Drishya; he is able to paint a broad portrait of an apocalyptic present with the note of urgency and poignancy. He colors his fictional canvas with deft strokes. He writes with thoroughness of detail and poetic imageries. But his strength appears to be his weakness.
While providing elegant narrative, he fails to put the hold upon the story. Though, Drishya’s homeward journey evokes nostalgia with consummate mastery, towards the end, the story gets increasingly implausible. An encounter with Palpasa in a bus as a co-passenger and the fatal ambush which spares protagonist alive and his beloved dead is much a make-believe stuff straight out of Bollywood flicks. Wagle would have been better off had he woven the denouement more plausibly. Drishya is abruptly arrested from his gallery and the novel comes to an end leaving Phulan all alone.
The epilogue is an inquiry of Palpasa’s Nepali buddy from US; adjoining to the beginning of metafictional mould. The opening pages promise a lot, but it ends as an unsatisfying novel.
Book review by Deepak Adhikari
Image source: Deepak Adhikari’s blog