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Red sun rising
The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is a daunting subject for a debut novel. But Narayan Wagle's Palpasa Cafe almost manages to pull it off. Trying to capture the decade-long civil war through the eyes of Drishya, an artist, the novel begins on a promising note but peters out in the end.
Nonetheless, there are positives. For a novel that was originally written in Nepali and then translated into English, the author's wit and subtle humour are not lost in translation. However, the free-flowing prose is let down by the content. Wagle tries his best to graphically describe the people caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the Nepali state, but fails to delve deeper into the subject. Like his emotionally indecisive protagonist, Wagle flirts with the topic but fails to commit to it.
Coincidences play a major role in Palpasa Cafe, but Wagle is unable to manage them well. It is as if he knew how he wanted his novel to finish even before he got there. Hence, he uses coincidences like the death of the protagonist's love interest, Palpasa, who is killed when the Maoists ambush the bus she is on, moments after she reappears in the story out of the blue, to force through his preconceived storyline. The ending is painfully stretched, dampening the overall momentum.
But where Wagle succeeds is in making a political statement. Although unsuccessful in exploring the fundamental factors behind the Maoist insurgency, Palpasa Cafe is successful in portraying a country caught between a rock and a hard place. Wagle's protagonist tells us how there are three, not two, ideological camps in the country with this third neutral camp, comprising those who have suffered the most, representing the true soul of Nepal that had been badly mauled by the civil war. He admits that the Maoists have a valid agenda but their means cannot be justified.
Wagle could have done a lot more with the subject he had chosen. For, like his protagonist's paintings, Palpasa Cafe has a lot of empty white spaces. The outcome would have been truly remarkable had Wagle got the balance between the various elements in his novel right.
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