I Am an Executioner: Love Stories
- Rajesh Parameswaran
- 272 pp.
- May 8, 2012
Ranging from a tiger’s mind to an executioner hungry for love, the nine stories in this debut collection are a wellspring of dazzling ideas and striking imagery.
Reviewed by Phil Harvey
This debut collection of nine stories is chock-a-block with wonderful ideas and images. We move from the mind of a well-meaning tiger to the fate of a fraudulent doctor (who practices with predictably awful consequences) to an agent in a dystopian world of the future where everyone is spying on everyone else, to a story narrated by a huge butterfly-like creature in the year 2319. Parameswaran’s imagination darts and soars, inviting us to share the points of view of creatures that are utterly new and original. On that level, as an intellectual potpourri of bubbling ideas, these stories work very well. But they sometimes come up short on drama and conclusiveness.
His best stories do have dramatic punch. The tiger made me care for his victims and for his own accidental lethality. The butterfly beings, acting and thinking much like conflicted humans, are compelling. In “The Four Rajeshes,” a stationmaster in mid-20th-century India fondles his male assistant and obsesses over the esoteric scribblings of a newly hired clerk, an impoverished Brahmin who is literate in English but who scribbles — on paper and on walls, sidewalks, and trees — mysterious markings that are seen as gibberish by Hindus and Englishmen alike, though several people remark that these markings seem quite beautiful. The stationmaster devotes much of his career to following this man and unraveling his mystery.
The tale, marvelously told, is weakened by parenthetical asides as the narrator chides his chronicler over one or another of the story’s revelations as though he weren’t telling his story himself (but he is). These confabulations serve only to confuse, but the revelation that the scribblings are (probably) the esoteric formulae of a brilliant mathematician is a satisfying surprise.
The title story is about a generally inept but thoroughly engaging Indian chap who lives in a village in a small and famous country that is much like India. The man serves as the town’s executioner. He’s a little feeble-minded, in ways that are sometimes funny, and he narrates his story in awkward Indian English that can be hard to follow. (“I myself looked to Warden with wonder. My eyes was asking: This is like a big and serious criminal?”) But when he pulls off gems like “doing squinchy-squinchy” to describe his sexual carryings-on with a local prostitute, we’re willing to be patient.
Further, his attitude toward his job, and his relationships with the prisoners he must kill, are original and compelling. His young wife, who disdains him utterly and will not let him come near her, seems inexplicably drawn to the details of the violent deaths of her husband’s victims. Her interest seems, briefly, to include an element of sexual excitement and our executioner is thus persuaded to arrange for his wife to witness the gruesome execution of a young girl he must kill in an especially awful way. In exchange, he demands that his wife have sex with him. That doesn’t work, but we are left feeling grateful to have met this hapless but surprisingly sympathetic character.
Other stories are less consistently involving. An unsophisticated Indian woman in America is dumbfounded to find her husband dead on the floor of their home. She doesn’t know what to do with him so she leaves him there, eventually convincing herself that his death is her own doing. But, unlike the executioner and stationmaster, we don’t come to know this woman or to care as much about her dilemma.
Other good stories are vitiated by frustrating plot omissions. In “Narrative of Agent 97-4702,” the narrator has conducted an intense investigation of subject 243-66328. We learn some details about this man and the fact that a huge subterranean vault contains thousands of files on him. But, as the story stumbles to a quick conclusion, we never learn who he was, or why he had been so rigorously investigated. Similarly, in the huge colony of six-legged butterfly creatures (“On the Banks of Table River”), a human visitor goes mysteriously missing. Much is made of his disappearance but we never learn what happened to him. The imagery and inventiveness of these stories could only be enhanced if these plot lines were completed.
Finally, an otherwise poignant tale of a herd of elephants (“Elephants in Captivity”) is sabotaged by lengthy footnotes. The footnotes, considerably longer than the text, use a different voice, and send the reader in several directions at once. A pity, because the story of these elephants could otherwise be quite moving.
Parameswaran’s stories are remarkable for their imaginative forays into the minds of animals, for depicting awkwardly unsophisticated but sympathetic and engaging Indians, and for singular, humorous sentence structures. I’m pleased to have spent time with these characters.
Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 13 publications.