Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman
There’s footage out there in the video-streaming digital ether of a British journalist doing a feature on the renowned Indian strongman Bibhuti Nayak. Nayak boasts a higher, enlightened harmony with his body and claims he can control his own pain receptors through disciplined meditation, intensive strength training, yoga, and regulated breathing exercises. Although Nayak can erupt into an awesome flutter of frenzied sit-ups, one-armed pull-ups, and knuckle push-ups, he can also endure a staggering quantity of kicks between the legs, which can be observed in a short, sophomoric segment of the BBC feature. Nayak invites the journalist to kick him, and a few kicks in, a voice-over begins to narrate: “Now that I’ve started,” he explains gleefully, “I can’t seem to stop!”
In Man on Fire, Stephen Kelman tries to pull a novel out of this Youtube curiosity in an act that is ultimately unfair to BB Nayak’s impressive life. Kelman loosely fictionalizes Nayak’s very-real history but situates his biography in a misguided novel about an aged British man named John Lock who leaves his wife Ellen in an effort to find some kind of spirituality in India under BB’s guidance. Lock’s chapters clunkily shift into a strange second-person narrative, addressing “you”, as if the entire novel is a confession to the God he never thought he believed in. With additional sections narrated by Nayak himself, recounting various world records he obtained with both the Guinness and Limca committees, Man on Fire aims to be a book about perseverance, both physical and spiritual, and the enlightenment such hardship might bestow upon a person.
The trouble with Man on Fire is that a sadistic, post-colonial subtext runs torrentially under its more noble intentions. During their first meeting, Lock and BB discuss God and destiny. Lock narrates:
“I said I’d never believed in either, but that I was willing to be surprised. I didn’t mean that. I’d made it through sixty years of living without once hearing your footsteps behind me and I had no expectation of ever hearing them. But Bibhuti needed the lie. He needed to feel a closeness to me so my plea would stick. I told him when I’d seen him on TV a light had gone on inside me and I relied on him to presume it was divinity’s hand working the switch.”
Lock shows early signs of being somewhat manipulative and reprehensible, but when he explains what called him to India, a cruelty emerges that is ultimately impossible to shake: “You want someone to break fifty baseball bats over yourself. You need someone to do the hitting. I can swing the bats, it won’t be a problem.”
While Man on Fire lays the framework for a novel about hope and determination (“if [the people] endure pain,” Nayak explains, “they will reach happiness that comes after”) it is never not a novel about a sixty year old British man who wants to beat an Indian man within inches of his life. It doesn’t matter if the action is in the name of aggression or enlightenment. “I had a taste for his blood,” Lock thinks. But, to Nayak, “it is the love in our hearts which is the key, this will unlock both of our destinies.”
Just as Nayak and Lock pull Man on Fire between a novel about faith and something far more off-putting, Kelman’s prose is routinely yanked from its path. The majority of Man on Fire is composed of short, choppy sentences: “Ellen wouldn’t have known what hit her. At the time I thought there was mercy in that. I thought I was doing her a favor.” This truncated, accessible prose will surely broaden Kelman’s readership (his 2011 Booker-shortlisted Pigeon English is already in some pre-collegiate classrooms), yet there are bolts of confounding poetic turns that befuddle more than they dazzle. In one early scene, he and BB visit a monastery full of ping-pong playing monks, where a matchwinning shot was “a forehand rocket that went through a wormhole and came out the other side covered in slime from the birth of the universe.” These richly-rendered, meaningless descriptions resurface often. In one scene Lock recalls a time back in England where he would “go out into the garden and X-ray specs the bones of all the animals buried there.” In another, “the women in the crowd posed in shapes of grace, steadied their hands to catch the eggs from upturned nests when the sky started falling in.” These uneven moments are further distractions in an already muddy novel.
It is difficult to read Man on Fire without imagining what another author would have done with Bibhuti Nayak’s story. At times the novel feels less about his life than it is about his novelty: Nayak’s forays into journalism and Bollywood are only touched upon in brief Nayak-narrated episodes and they feel like obligatory inclusions on the way to more accounts of his physical performances. But even then, Lock’s crisis of faith and abandoned wife overpower much of Man on Fire’s drama and clutter the later portions of the novel with vitriol and befuddlement. Although well-intentioned and deserving of accolades for introducing western readers to Nayak, Man on Fire ultimately feels like a misguided, squandered effort.