Book World: A mechanical tiger bounds through an epic saga in ‘Loot’

“Loot” by Tania James. PHOTO: Knopf.
       Loot, By Tania James, Knopf. 304 pp. $28

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At the center of Tania James’s new novel, “Loot,” a tiger crouches over an Englishman, chomping on his neck forever. It’s an arresting image, strangely comic and ghoulish – all the more so for being real. Or real-ish, at least.

In the 1790s, Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in India, received an automaton that must have seemed as astonishing to his courtiers as ChatGPT does to us today. This almost life-size contraption consisted of a man wearing a red coat pinned on the ground under a giant cat. Turn a crank and the man groaned and waved one arm over his mouth while the animal growled. A keyboard and a set of bellows running alongside the tiger’s body made it so that the mauling could be accompanied by celebratory tunes. It gave a whole new meaning to organ music.

Tipu’s Tiger now resides in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which is something of a spoiler, but that takes nothing away from the suspense of James’s magical tale. Like the craftsmen who once compressed that ingenious machinery inside the body of a wooden tiger, James has engineered a vast story of geopolitical conflict within the life of a simple peasant.

Her hero, Abbas, is a curious 17-year-old whose poor family doesn’t see much value in his talent for carving mechanical toy animals. What’s worse, he inadvertently gets caught up in a eunuch’s plot against Tipu Sultan. Fortunately, a French clockmaker working in the sultan’s summer palace takes note of Abbas’s skill, and at the last possible moment, the young man is spared. It’s decided that Abbas will help the clockmaker create l’automate of a tiger standing over its dinner. “And I want the teeth planted in the neck of the infidel,” the sultan commands. He gives the Frenchman and his new apprentice just six weeks.

James moves within the historical record while freely exploiting its considerable gaps and silences. Tipu – the Tiger of Mysore – really did have a thing for big cats, and there were Frenchmen in southern India when England was waging war against the country in the late 18th century. But how and why this famous fake man-eater is produced in “Loot” is entirely the author’s own marvelous invention.

For Tipu Sultan, a tiger perpetually feasting on one of his enemies is a delightful prospect, a symbolic repudiation of his recent humiliation by the English. It’s also a chance to demonstrate that India will not only equal but exceed Europe’s scientific advancements and imagination. But bringing that vision to life in wood and sound poses technological challenges for the French clockmaker and artistic ones for Abbas. To this point, the young man has made nothing but clever trinkets; but with his life on the line, Abbas throws himself into the royal project, and James lets us feel every cut and bore. “The wood begins to lose its anonymity,” she writes. “He learns its fragrance and grain. Straightening the chisel, he knocks toward what he imagines to be a tiger, waiting to be unleashed.” That’s a striking metaphor for how this story emerges, too.

Being involved with such a remarkable creation changes Abbas, even before he and the French clockmaker finish. “There was a time when the figurines were more than enough, full of accidental discoveries and discarded failures, and sometimes delight,” James writes. “Yet something has shifted in him, the emergence of some new possibility, a future of making more than toys and figurines. Is it the effect of living in the Summer Palace, of witnessing the grandeur of so much sky? Of gazing out at the horizon and wondering what lies beyond that line?”

The rest of “Loot” unspools far beyond that line, in places around the world that young Abbas can barely imagine. At 300 pages, this isn’t a particularly long novel, but James is a master miniaturist who can create the illusion of a saga in a chapter. And she’s not afraid to radically reset the novel’s place and tone. Her pages feel as full as a 19th-century bildungsroman, with collapsing kingdoms, sailing ships and elaborate schemes. Her plot is crisscrossed with coincidences and near misses, acts of great villainy and stunning kindness, and, of course, a long-simmering romance that’s doomed – until it isn’t!

What stays consistent throughout is James’s wry awareness of the distorting function of racism and colonialism. And her prose is lush with the sights, sounds and smells of India, France and England, and always laced with Dickensian wit. Describing a wealthy collector, James writes: “At seventy-two years old, she is sharp, vigorous, and given to dressing in her own designs, which sometimes gives the impression that she has dressed herself in the dark.” Later, an elderly neighbor about to go fox hunting sits “hunched in his saddle as if taxidermied in place.” Such good humor is a salve to the novel’s abiding tragedy of loss and prejudice.

As the decades pass and the miles pile up, Tipu’s Tiger sometimes drifts from the center of the story, but it’s always in the background, growling and munching on that Englishman’s neck. Meanwhile, the title functions as both noun and verb whenever the remarkable automaton is looted from one owner and consigned to another, its meaning transformed from treasure to spoil, from proof of the sultan’s ferocity to evidence of his defeat.

But even more fascinating is the way Abbas himself is looted, buffeted around the world by clashing authorities. In India, he must negotiate his value by proving his skill; in Europe, where he is the Muhammadan, the infidel, the other, his value is brutally discounted no matter what his abilities. “Race,” James notes, “is the final ranking.” She won’t let that judgment be the last word on her hero, though, as he vacillates between “con artist or artist.”

Abbas doesn’t hear the household servant who insists that it’s “never too late to reinvent yourself,” but he knows that’s true better than anyone else in this captivating story. He just wants to create something that will outlast its creator. James surely has.



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