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November/December 2020
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The Prevalence of Witches, by Aubrey Menen (1947)

Born to an Indian father and Irish mother, Aubrey Menen reputedly disdained posthumous survival for his works. But his first novel, whose success let him become a full-time writer, deserves preservation. Wickedly acerbic, cynical and comedic, this magical-realist account of the kingdom of Limbo, India, evokes Butler's Erewhon by way of Narayan and Márquez.

Our unnamed narrator, a Westerner, arrives to become Education Minister under King Cattullus. Native sloth and corruption undermine his efforts. "[The] school would stay unroofed for a considerable time, unless I gave express orders, and twice the cost in cash, for it to be done.... [These] tactics would succeed, because the school-teacher would spend the money on drink, and be so ashamed that she would see that a roof was built for my next visit, in order that I should not ask questions." Bemused yet sanguine, our hero adapts, while relishing a plethora of fabulistic tales from the Swami, Judge Bose, Missionary Small, and the nation's most famous witch-doctor.

As for the witches, they are sly, impossible to kill, and capable of transmigration into dogs. But, surprise, the biggest witch proves to be Winifred, Catullus's British wife. She is accused of eclipsing the moon and angering tigers. "She had used for domestic purposes a jar dedicated to holding food for the tiger-god, and clearly marked on the outside with tigers to show what it was used for. The witch-doctor said he could hold the Limbodians back just so far, but he couldn't say what they would do if provoked." On that note foreshadowing the real-world Indian independence movement, Menen bids his shambolic province farewell.

Paul Di Filippo

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