At the centre of Tabish Khair’s latest book, The Body By The Shore, is an abandoned oil rig that floats in the middle of the ocean like a suspended nightmare. It is here that the three main characters are all destined to arrive. Alongside capturing their personal journeys to confront the horrors that lie caged within the rig-turned-resort’s secret lair, Khair also traces humankind’s seemingly unstoppable passage to the abuse of scientific knowledge. The result is a wildly entertaining exploration on inter-species relationships.
Jens Erik, the first of the three protagonists, is a retired police officer who lives alone in a modest house in Aarhus. He spends his days raking up leaves, tending to his flower beds, cultivating vegetables, and bird watching. He is at constant loggerheads with his daughter, who accuses him of being racist, even borrows Salman Rushdie’s words to speak her mind: “Trees have roots, human beings have legs.” But Erik, a simpleton, can’t fathom why anyone apart from refugees would abandon their homeland and move by choice. His peace and pace of life is disrupted when one day his estranged daughter, referring to his old police days, asks him, “Are you sure, that you have never discriminated between the crimes to solve?”
Thus floats a forgotten body from the past, of a young black man who was found on the shore of the North Sea in Denmark, with his organs removed and a visiting card clenched in his frozen fist. In his efforts to prove to his daughter that he is not a racist, Erik, a prejudiced man, one at odds with an evolving borderless world around him, starts digging deeper. Through Erik, the author delivers a profound meditation on racial prejudice and the complexities involved in conceiving a fair world.
Harris Malouf, the next protagonist, has a lot in common with Jens Erik. He loves gardening and he is retired, although from his profession as a secret assassin. He too lives in a quaint house but has guard swans for company and a monthly letter from his ex-partner to look forward to. His dreamy second life as an assistant lecturer hits the brakes when he gets an intriguing assignment from his handler, Mermaid. One that leads him to the rigs, and leads the reader to wonder if a scientific thriller can indeed wake us up to our climate reality.
The narrative, however, is most affecting when it comes to the third protagonist, Michelle, a young Caribbean girl who has blindly followed her new boyfriend, Kurt, to the oil rig in search of a better life, only to realise that she may never make it out alive. Meanwhile, in a different timeline, ace scientists and intellectuals who all took part in the same seminar on microbes disappear mysteriously one by one.
These storylines and others gradually fit together to paint a picture of the dangers of scientific knowledge. Like Amitav Ghosh does in Calcutta Chromosome, Khair creates a world where conspiracies lurk everywhere.
The titular character, the ‘body’ on the shore, exists only as an absence at the heart of the book. Other characters, even the minor ones, are vividly alive and the plot has just the right measure of rush, danger and excitement.
For all the book’s conscientious ambitions, the writing is surprisingly atmospheric, like here when Jens Erik describes his love for the month of November: “You could complain about the darkness stretching into late morning… the slate-coloured clouds weighing down on you all day, the rain that never fell and never stopped.. Or you could feel how small the world had become, as if the sky was huddling, and you had to just stretch your arms to touch all the sides. Jens Erik liked this sense of smallness.”
Perched ambiguously between speculative fiction and scientific thriller, the novel rests on facts. Each chapter, sometimes even a section, is bookended with scientific anecdotes and case studies regarding parasites, viruses and microbiomes. While this at times does wreck the flow, it makes up for it by helping the reader stay abreast with the emotional enormity of what human beings have done to the world.
Facts have been trimmed to form this speculative topiary, which at times feels too depraved to be believable. To quote Atul Gawande, “scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of experience and common sense”.
If life imitates art, then The Body By The Shore is an oracle of times to come—an intellectual joyride that leaves you pondering in the end as to how far we think we have come, yet how little we really know.
Akshaya Pillai is a features writer based out of Kerala.