Review: I Am An Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran

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I’m dawdling in my local bookstore, thinking up creative ways to avoid working. I come across an enigmatic title on the new fiction table: I Am An Executioner: Love Stories. 

Love stories? Execution? Together? I’m intrigued. I pick it up, flip through the first pages, and find myself plunged into the mind a dejected tiger listening to the moans of his dream female having sex at the far end of the zoo enclosure. The alpha male strikes again. Poor tiger. Interesting story (the tiger goes on to fall in love with his zookeeper… it doesn’t end well).

Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection of fiction is full of stories with original premises and engaging prose. He moves easily from the world of animals to death row to the offices of fake doctors to outer space. There really isn’t time to get bored.

His relentless creativity makes spending a few hours with his work a pleasure. But it is also where his faults lie. “Elephants In Captivity (Part I)”, for example, is a bifurcated story narrated in the main text by an elephant and in the footnotes by a human editor. The human voice intrudes into the elephant’s story to the extent where some pages have only one line of text and nearly a full page of notes. This is a clever structure, and as you read on you realize the notes actually tell their own story rather than simply expanding the main text. But it’s not easy to follow. Footnotes have been banished to academia for centuries, and there’s a reason for that.

Similarly, “The Four Rajeshes” is a historical tale that is actually being invented on the fly by a narrator (Rajesh) who is looking at photograph of a man long dead — a man (Rajesh, also) about whom he knows nothing. In this highly self-referential piece, the dead (and imagined) Rajesh’s voice frequently interrupts the present Rajesh to chastise him for getting his character wrong and mistelling the tale of his life.

Are you befuddled by this explanation? Try reading the story; it’s another overdose of ingenuity. The actual meat of the narrative is fascinating — it’s inspired by Melville’s famous short “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, but the action has been transposed to the early days of train travel in rural India. The characters are great: they have ambition, love, eccentricity, and charm. But Parameswaran’s habit of opening the hood of the story to play around with the machinery serves no purpose other than to get in the way of the story itself. Sure, it demonstrates his familiarity with a postmodernist deconstruction of narrative and identity, but I think that’s a bit old hat by now. And it doesn’t make for fun reading.

Happily, most of the stories are content to abide in the realm of cogency, and they keep the pages turning. Parameswaran’s voice is both irreverent and warm, and when it comes to setting and genre it feels as if nothing can hold him back. I was refreshed to be one minute immersed in a frightening society where everyone turns out to be a secret agent spying on everyone else (“Narrative of Agent 97-4702” — the collection’s best story, in my opinion), and the next amid a poignant love triangle with Bollywood’s aging giants (“Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard”). By the time I reached the back cover, I felt I’d been around the world two or three times.

I Am An Executioner has depth and humour. It asks tough questions — some too tough, perhaps — and doesn’t give answers easily. The stories’ endings are somewhat loose, but usually in a good way, finding a balance between offering resolution and inviting you to wonder what happened next.

On the whole, I’m impressed. Parameswaran apparently has a novel in the works, and I’ll be looking out for it. In the meantime, if you’re also thinking of how to avoid work, checking out I Am An Executioner is not a bad idea.

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