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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Story of my Assassins

by
Tarun J. Tejpal


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Story of my Assassins



Title: The Story of my Assassins
Author: Tarun J. Tejpal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 522 pages
Availability: The Story of my Assassins - US
The Story of my Assassins - UK
The Story of my Assassins - Canada
The Story of my Assassins - India
Histoire de mes assassins - France
La storia dei miei assassini - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very solid storytelling, but a bit unwieldy as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 5/10/2012 Victor Mallet
Independent on Sunday . 14/10/2012 Peter Popham
India Today . 16/1/2009 S.Prasannarajan
The Observer . 23/11/2012 Jason Burke
Outlook India A+ 9/2/2009 Manjushree Thapa
Publishers Weekly A 30/7/2012 .
The Telegraph . 3/4/2009 Shams Afif Siddiqi
Wall St. Journal . 22/9/2012 Sam Sacks


  From the Reviews:
  • "Tejpal is a consummate crafter of political and social aphorisms of particular relevance to India (....) The power of The Story of My Assassins lies not in these tidy generalisations but in its handling of the messy detail of steel and flesh" - Victor Mallet, Financial Times

  • "Tejpal takes us into the different worlds, all brilliantly evoked, that these men inhabit. He spares us nothing in his depiction of the lust, cruelty and despair which are to be found towards the bottom of the heap in India" - Peter Popham, Independent on Sunday

  • "Tejpal is not picnicking in the proverbial Other India; he is not romanticising the essential savagery of the Indian countryside either. And he is too smart a storyteller to succumb to the temptations of biography, even though the narrator is a journalist and the magazine is desperately looking for a backer. The Story of My Assassins is an argument with power, a counter-narrative from someone who has been chosen by the state to sustain a lie." - S.Prasannarajan, India Today

  • "Tejpal, a co-founder of campaigning Indian magazine Tehelka, avoids cliches to render the tragedy, comedy, colour and violence of modern India better than anything else I have read in my three years as correspondent here." - Jason Burke, The Observer

  • "Few of India's English novelists are as grounded in the Indian reality as Tejpal; and few English novels from here are as finely textured and true-to-life as Assassins. (...) Tejpal is a marvellously observant writer. He brilliantly evokes the city's power machinery with a few strokes (.....) Assassins does not just entertain. It also enlightens. This is set to be the definitive Great Delhi Novel of our times." - Manjushree Thapa, Outlook India

  • "Tejpalís masterful U.S. debut is an epic tale of modern-day India and its labyrinthine social and political machinations. (...) (T)he book works on many levels: it is a sweeping indictment of government bureaucracy, a revelation of the layered consequences of revenge, an exposť of the stunning violence visited upon victims of circumstance, and a brazen censure of how technology has quashed imagination -- it is also a philosophical treatise on how to live oneís life to the fullest" - Publishers Weekly

  • "It is sometimes harsh, at other times incisive, written in an unconventional, racy idiom that is as irritating as it is thought-provoking. Tejpalís language is offbeat. It is straightforward, journalistic, crude, bordering on the vulgar, and yet it will be difficult to put down the book once you have started reading it, at least till the fifth part." - Shams Afif Siddiqi, The Telegraph (Calcutta)

  • "The pleasing surprise is that Mr. Tejpal writes with splendid élan: His novel is a stylish, erudite potboiler that reads like a mix of Alexandre Dumas and India's ancient national epic, the Mahabharata. (...) As Mr. Tejpal colors in the details of these intersecting lives, he creates an exhilarating panorama of a country gripped by Darwinian striving." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       At the heart of The Story of my Assassins is what appears to be an unsuccessful hit-attempt on an Indian journalist. The unnamed would-be victim tells the story from his point of view, but separate sections are interspersed in the novel, in which the stories of the five men arrested for the hit are recounted (by an omniscient narrator).
       The novel begins in 2000, with the narrator finding out that he was the intended target in a just-foiled assassination attempt. A somewhat muckraking journalist who runs a magazine with a buddy of his, he has no idea why anyone would want to target him in such an elaborate plot. From then on he gets a security detail to protect him -- but he can't really convince himself that his life was or remains in any danger.
       Aside from being targeted for a hit, he has other concerns. For one, the magazine is tanking fast: even any notoriety he might have gotten for it with the failed hit seems to fade fast, as they soon find themselves printing merely a thousand copies (compared to a circulation-high of forty-five thousand) of an issue of a slim twenty-four pages. Indeed, much of his narrative describes the relentless kowtowing to backers -- both the original trio (who had already been backing out as fast as they could) and potential new ones. It offers him some insight into the way business is done in India, but proves to be a wild goose chase.
       The narrator is married but he doesn't think much of his wife -- generally referring to her as "Dolly/folly" -- and he is in the middle of a very intense affair when this begins. Sex with his lover, Sara, is aggressive and confrontational (and passionate, on some level), but even here things get complicated when Sara -- somewhat of an idealist ("Sara wanted to fix the world") -- takes up the cause of her lover's assassins. She thinks there's more to the story -- and, indeed, that arguably: "the killers were the real victims".
       As their stories make clear, as each one's background and formative years are described, they are, in a sense victims; certainly they've all been victimized, one way or another, often horribly so. But for the most part they're not exactly innocents, either -- and one is a bona fide hitman, with an extraordinary amount of blood on his hands.
       The crime itself still doesn't add up -- but then much in India doesn't add up, and it's that that Tejpal wants to show. There's the policeman who tries to go by the book, taking too long to learn that:

The rules, he realized, were not what were written in the book, but what everyone had agreed to follow.
       Corruption is endemic -- and generally accepted --, right down to schemes such as:
Some of the key teachers there actually worked on a proxy. The men appointed by the state lived in Muzaffarnagar while other men nominated by them came and taught in their name: the salary was split between the two. The government was aware of this, but it had more important things to worry about.
       And one of the exposés published in the magazine just turns out to have more of an impact because it implicates "the meanest motherfucking mugger of all" -- even though otherwise it is pretty much business as usual, even as that amounts to:
Fictitious invoices, fictitious transportation, fictitious handouts to millions of fictitious poor. Rivers of grain had flowed on paper, without a fistful exchanging hands. Ministers and bureaucrats had been colluding with fatcat traders to cream the exchequer of hundreds of crores.
       This is the India Tejpal is describing, example after example of variations on the same old ugly theme.
       When the narrator (naïvely) voices some concern that a possible deal for investment in the magazine might be a form of insider trading he is berated::
In fact, everything in this fucking country is insider trading ! What do you think politics in this damn city is ? What do you think your fucking journalism is ? There is no truth in this fucking country except for the poor bastard on the street who has to carry the load, all of it, and of you and me ! Have you ever really looked at that poor bastard ?
       The would-be assassins are, of course, such 'poor bastards', at least in part. In telling their stories, Tejpal offers a variety of slices of Indian life, Muslim and Hindu, rural and urban, well-meaning and criminal. They are vivid and often fascinating life-stories in their own right, shining a light into many different corners of contemporary Indian life.
       Part of the problem with the novel, however, is in putting it all together. As someone tells the narrator:
You are like the dead body in a mystery movie. The movie revolves around you, but you have only a guest appearance and it is now over.
       But Tejpal didn't get that memo, and tries to write a murder mystery in which the victim remains alive and well -- but without properly involving him in the resolution of the mystery. The narrator is egged on by his mistress, but doesn't take a very active interest in his assassins. He muddles along -- with his police protection -- and is more interested in hearing what his guru has to say (yes, the mystical element of India also gets a role in the story) and in trying to figure out what to do with himself as his magazine tanks. Not only that, but it takes some three years before things are more or less resolved.
       Eventually, he is given a sort of official explanation, and he's almost happy to live with that (for a journalist he really seems phenomenally incurious ...). As Sara nicely sums up:
Listen, you are a stupid schoolboy. They know it. They deal with fools like you every day. They know you are thrilled at having become so grand. Killers after you, policemen guarding you, judges studying your case. It's your ultimate wet dream, isn't it ? Well, they are making it wetter for you, much grander -- an international conspiracy, Pakist commissioning assassins, fancy officers in multistoreyed buildings decoding complicated plots. You are finally starring in your own pulp novel. You are dying to believe them. So just do.
       The final explanation is revealed in a scene also out of a pulp novel, but otherwise entirely more plausible. But The Story of my Assassins falls a bit flat as whodunit (as in: who was behind the foiled plot, and why). And while the basic plot is certainly mystery-adequate, the presentation is entirely too digressive and unfocused, with the narrator a weak leading (in the sense of leading the story along) character.
       That's, in part, no doubt intentional on Tejpal's part: he means The Story of my Assassins to be a broad panoramic look -- full of lengthy asides -- at the state of contemporary India, corrupted to the bone (and beyond). And his stories of the assassins are, in large part, quite remarkable introductions into these various different parts of India (though note also that they are dark and often extremely violent and ugly). But it's telling that Tejpal gives voice to his obnoxious journalist, allowing him to tell his own story, but doesn't extend the same favor to the assassins, whose much more interesting stories are told for them -- yet another form of disenfranchisement. Perhaps rendering them literally voiceless in this way -- with almost nothing learned about (and much less from) them for the three odd years they're in the system after their arrests, except in closing, in summary form -- is appropriate, but it seems at odds with Tejpal's message.
       Some of the stories and episodes that are recounted here are very impressive and could easily stand on their own -- the assassins' stories by themselves would make for a decent stand-alone story-collection -- but Tejpal can't quite fit it all together. The assassins' stories are a bit too neat (and too neatly cut off) in putting a spotlight on different parts of Indian life. And there's that very loud and rather unpleasant narrator who, despite being a journalist, doesn't pursue this story which has fallen into his lap with much enthusiasm, which makes for odd pacing to the book as well. Certainly, Tejpal doesn't have a mystery or thriller writer's instincts (which would have killed off the narrator, or had him follow the investigation more closely -- or take the lead in looking into the case).
       If not entirely satisfying as a whole, The Story of my Assassins certainly quite easily holds readers' attention along the way: despite abrupt transitions, unanswered questions, and some very odd decisions, Tejpal offers a largely gripping read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2012

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Links:

The Story of my Assassins: Reviews: Tarun J. Tejpal: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of literature from and about India

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About the Author:

       Indian author and journalist Tarun J. Tejpal was born in 1963.

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© 2012 the complete review

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