Elephants may soon be spared the indignities of the traveling circus, but their fate at the hands of poachers seems considerably less hopeful. According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s hair-raising New Yorker report on the ivory trade, some 70,000 African elephants were destroyed for their tusks between 2011 and 2014. About the only aspect of the mass extirpation that appears to be quieting is the method of slaughter. “Poachers have increasingly turned to poisoned arrows,” wrote Kolbert in July, “because gunshots betray their location.”
To judge from Tania James’s new novel, “The Tusk That Did the Damage,” this last bit of news has apparently not reached hunters in South India, whose grim mission is betrayed by the bullet pouch sagging from their pockets. Where Kolbert’s unflinching report reads like an animal activist’s cri de coeur, James’s literary M.O.is muted and ambiguous. The sides to this poaching business appear to be as multifarious as they are nuanced, and James intends to give them all their day in court. Including the elephants.
James’s compact novel revolves around the tribulations of a much-feared elephant named the Gravedigger, as mediated by three alternating voices: the brother of a would-be career poacher, a young US filmmaker and the Gravedigger himself. The filmmaker, Emma Lewis, is the least consequential and most aggravating, in that barnstorming American manner long favored by fiction and the big screen. Emma and her working partner Teddy Welsh have come to India to track the exploits of Dr. Ravi Varma, a wildlife park veterinarian and self-styled pachyderm whisperer who reunites imperiled elephant calves with their mothers. Avatars of the “March of the Penguins” generation, the neophyte directors hope to make a documentary “that would exhume the trauma sealed deep inside animal minds.”
Emma, alas, soon succumbs to the animal magnetism of Dr. Varma, who possesses “the jawline of a film star, or at least a prime-time anchorman.” Emma’s reckless flirtation complicates her professional role as soon as she and Teddy begin to poke at the deeper story roiling beneath their Nature Channel-y agenda: political tensions that put the dashing doctor in the crosshairs between corrupt park officials and a local community burdened by new preservation laws.
The hopes and struggles of that community are given engaging voice in the person of Manu, the younger son of a ne’er-do-well farmer whose capacity for alcohol is matched by “an unholy weakness for betting on cards, dogs, local elections, anywhere he might turn a note into two.” Manu idolizes his older brother Jayan, a natural hunter and student of the forest who misapplies his know-how by killing elephants in service of a wealthy ivory trader. Jayan is locked up for his deeds. Though he emerges from incarceration a reformed man, Jayan is barely out of prison when a relative drums him into one last kill: hunting down the notorious Gravedigger.
Manu’s percolating first-person narration contrasts markedly with the somnolent third-person style the author has devised to animate the perspective of this tragic elephant, so named for the human toll he has exacted and the manner in which he buries his victims. In blinking bursts of prose, James tells the Gravedigger’s story beginning in his youth, when he witnesses his mother shot by hunters and brutally denuded of her tusks.
This brief, sorrowful opening chapter is about as close as the Gravedigger sections come to risking unbridled emotionality. Detailing the Gravedigger’s cruel manhandling at the hand of thuggish caretakers or Job-like conscription working festivals for a profit-minded owner, James opts instead for the watchful remove of a Bresson film. The effect can be anesthetizing, no more so than in the centerpiece story from which the book derives its title, a windy allegorical elephant tale in the model of Kipling’s “Just-So Stories.”
Tranquilized by the lullaby gravitas of these chapters, I was gratefully roused by Dr. Varma’s eleventh-hour plaint to Emma: “You people [. . .]. Always hunting for a story so others can watch and feel outrage.” One reads this book wishing it could churn up that outrage. “The Tusk That Did the Damage” is an artful, restrained novel that errs on the side of art and reticence.Jan Stuart is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.