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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Palpasa Café

Narayan Wagle

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To purchase Palpasa Café

Title: Palpasa Café
Author: Narayan Wagle
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 271 pages
Original in: Nepali
Availability: Palpasa Café - US
Palpasa Café - UK
Palpasa Café - Canada
Palpasa Café - India
Le Palpasa Café - France
  • Nepali title: पल्पसा क्याफे
  • Translated by Bikash Sangraula

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively blunt and to the point but with a richness to it too

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Kathmandu Post . 12/4/2015 Gérard Toffin
Nepali Times . 21/7/2005 Kunda Dixit
Nepali Times . 24/1/2008 Kunda Dixit

  From the Reviews:
  • "I personally see the book as portraying a constant balance between tradition and modernity. (...) The absence of any psychological analysis, corresponding to the customary Nepali repertoire of hidden feelings, also characterises the novel. In my view, the metaphors and the poetics of the book also reveal traditional Nepali patterns. Palpasa café is replete with poetic images about colours, birds, flowers, and trees. These devices pertain to a clearly defined, long national literary heritage." - Gérard Toffin, The Kathmandu Post

  • "Not only is this novel as fresh as an open wound, the author's imagination makes Nepal's real unfolding tragedy come alive with raw urgency. The plot is rendered in non-linear style that is experimental in the world of Nepali fiction. Wagle's Nepali is simple, colloquial and his voice is genuine and sincere. Drishya comes across sometimes as being unnecessarily abrasive, but Palpasa is an authentic diaspora daughter caught between love for her motherland and alienation from her adopted home. Narayan Wagle's book can be called an anti-war novel. It drags us to the edge and forces us to peer down at the abyss below." - Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times

  • "Something is always lost in translation when novels cross the language barrier. Happily, this one, which got a final polish from Linda Trigg, preserves the original nuances. Narayan Wagle wrote a powerful anti-war novel, delving deeply through his characters at the human cost of conflict. Now, through this English translation, a larger international audience can read about what Nepal's war did to its people." - Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times

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:

       Palpasa Café begins with a prefatory chapter in which author Wagle describes going to a meeting with the man who is the focus of a novel he has been writing; it is nearly complete and he just wants one final interview with his subject, an artist named Drishya. Drishya never makes it to the meeting; when Wagle reaches the assistant at Drishya's gallery he learns that five men showed up, claiming to be security personnel, and insisted he go with them -- an abduction, essentially, in broad daylight. It's an all-too common occurrence in early twenty-first century Nepal.
       In the concluding chapter, 'In the End', Wagle again assumes the narratorial mantle and describes having completed the novel -- completing it: "based on whatever information I've been able to piece together". Here he also reveals a bit about how the idea for the novel came about and how, inspired by Drishya, -- he wanted to write about an 'ordinary artist' ('ordinary' in the sense of sharing Wagle's own background) -- he approached the material:

I didn't interview anyone except Drishya. It was his story, after all, and told from his perspective.
       Indeed, the rest of the novel -- the actual 'novel', nested between these two framing chapters at beginning and end -- is entirely in Drishya's voice, with Palpasa Café entirely his story.
       Essentially all of Drishya's account is set before he is disappeared, but from the first the novel is not only a character-portrait but also very much a story leading up to that one point. Yet one of the things that makes it unusual is that Drishya's disappearance nevertheless comes almost arbitrarily. Readers expect it, forewarned by the brief introductory scenes, but the novel is not one that explains what led up to it -- not in the traditional sense of explanation. Instead, it shows a Nepal in which survival, from day to day, comes down as much to luck as anything, with very limited possibility of influencing fate by action: almost anyone can disappear (or die) from one moment to the next, with little obvious lead-up (much less actual warning) to it.
       The opening chapter also explains, in part, the title, Wagle mentioning that Drishya had told him of his grand dream to:
establish a resort built in the local architectural style and surrounded by sprawling coffee plantations where connoisseurs of art and coffee could experience something unique.
       Drishya hopes to realize the potential of the beautiful country and what could be done there; 'Palpasa Café' -- the name he planned to give it -- would be one of the many possible manifestations taking advantage of the natural beauty and appeal of the area.
       Drishya's account -- the novel proper, as it were -- actually begins in Goa, where he comes across a woman whom he had seen reading a book he had written about his paintings; her name is Palpasa, and they flirt back and forth in sounding each other out. Given that readers already know he plans to name his grand vision (one he has not yet had, at this point in his story) after her, it's not surprising that they fall in love -- though they do so cautiously and slowly, fate helpfully repeatedly bringing them together, here and later.
       Palpasa is Nepali but US-educated, a recent college graduate who hope to become a filmmaker. They circle each other carefully, their exchanges -- in a novel that is often very dialogue-heavy -- a playful but also probing banter. As Drishya puts it: "Palpasa was like a fruit that had to be peeled slowly to get to the core" -- yes, the narrative often falls back into near-cliché, and yet it almost always works and is fitting (though, certainly, a lighter, less obvious touch would have been welcome in places).
       Drishya is dedicated to his art above all else but while the first person to inform him of disaster complains: "Everything's finished and you're still sleeping", even he can't ignore the catastrophe that is unleashed by the massacre of the royals in June, 2001, throwing the country into chaos and soon exacerbating the civil war involving Maoist insurgents. Even he realizes: "Nepal would never be the same again".
       A friend from school who had become a leader among the rebels, Siddhartha, visits and asks for shelter, putting Drishya in a difficult position:
By giving him shelter, I was inviting trouble from the security forces. If I denied him shelter, I'd be inviting trouble from his people. It was a Catch-22 situation.
       And one he would then constantly encounter elsewhere in the deeply divided country.
       Siddhartha convinces Drishya to journey back into the countryside, away from Kathmandu -- "to see for yourself the way the country is these days". Drishya agrees, and much of the novel then follows his wanderings back to his rural home area and old village -- with Siddhartha basically only getting him started on his journey, and Drishya then left to wander on his own.
       It is a rewarding trip, and an eye-opening one. Much of the country is in rebel hands, with daughters coöpted into joining their forces -- in a countryside with little hope for now, as the schools have been destroyed. The Maoists are efficient -- seeing people get from one place to the next, for example, including, repeatedly, Drishya -- but also feared. The locals are welcoming but suspicious and always fearful; Drishya realizes: "No one here believed I was neutral. I'd become a stranger in my own home district".
       Many of Drishya's encounters and interactions are with individuals, met on their own, -- even a young girl -- and the dialogue-heavy scenes of Drishya and those he meets sounding each other out give a good feel for the general ominous atmosphere pervading everything. He does not witness much of the horror directly -- but it is never far; when he is the district capital when the rebels launch a major assault he gets a bullet hole in his trouser as a souvenir. He is, repeatedly, close to scenes of death -- and central to some of them.
       Early on, when he visits his childhood home, he has the inspiration for his resort. He sees the wonderful potential of the place -- and even that: "my village, though remote, could be part of the global village". It's a dream to look forward to -- as, indeed, is Palpasa herself, whom he realizes, during his extended absence, he truly loves. But the reality of the Nepali situation make the realization of any dreams almost hopelessly unlikely.
       In his concluding chapter, Wagle explains: "I haven't been able to stick to the traditional style of most novels", but his approach works well. He's particularly strong with the transitions, and the use of the just slightly unexpected -- presenting it without making too much out of it, which would diminish the effect. Scenes that shift from sweet to tragic, or tension that is left largely unresolved, impress -- and work very well.
       The fact that Drishya is a flawed hero, helps, too. He is, above all else, an artist -- and so his commitment to, for example, the women that appear in his life, is always influenced by that. He eventually realizes that he does want to commit to Palpasa -- but she, appearing almost as if whenever he wills it, is almost too good to be true. This is a finely-spun love story -- but harsh reality naturally intrudes. A foreigner who understands his art and spends a great deal of time with him ultimately also finds his lack of personal touch and understanding too much.
       Almost brusque, Palpasa Café covers a great deal of ground and action. It doesn't feel over-stuffed because Wagle doesn't take any clear sides here, understanding how actions are determined by desperate circumstances. Drishya tries to remain apolitical, simply dedicated to his art -- but the society he moves in, especially in the countryside, still means that even his actions have effects. There's no escaping the conditions in which all Nepalis find themselves. And, ultimately, Drishya becomes a victim as well -- for no good or bad reason.
       While the writing is, at times, uneven, and the dialogue -- intentionally, certainly, but nevertheless -- is somewhat stilted, and Wagle occasionally goes in perhaps too many different directions, on the whole Palpasa Café is a very impressive and successful novel of (near-)contemporary Nepal. Certainly recommended as such.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2019

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Palpasa Café: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Narayan Wagle (नारायण वाग्ले) is an editor and author in Nepal.

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