This week’s Deal Me In 2014 Challenge card is the 4 of Clubs, corresponding to Roald Dahl’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which can be found in the 1977 collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.
Roald Dahl is probably best known for his children’s fiction, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. But he also wrote a number of stories for adults, in addition to plays and screenplays. This is my first exposure to his adult work.
Wow. There is so much packed into this story. For starters, it’s a story-within-a-story, with all the layers that suggests. Additionally, Dahl repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly.
Henry Sugar (not his real name, which is intentional, as the narrator insists this is a true story) is a member of the idle rich. Dahl is very, very critical of the rich, labeling them selfish, lazy and largely useless. Henry Sugar is at a small party at a friend’s mansion when rain ruins all their plans for the afternoon’s entertainment.
“The very rich are enormously resentful of bad weather. It is the one discomfort that their money cannot do anything about.”
The party is relegated to indoor entertainment, and they decide to play high stakes canasta. As they have one too many players, they draw straws, with Henry Sugar getting the unlucky draw. He sulks around until he finds himself in the mansion’s library.
“Henry Sugar was not impressed. He wasn’t even interested. The only books he read were detective novels and thrillers.”
Henry finds a thin handwritten book, begins to read and finds himself interested enough to continue. He learns of the story of a Hindu with an amazing power, as evinced by the title of the the story, “A Report on an Interview with Imhrat Kahn, the Man Who Could See Without His Eyes.”
Kahn grew up poor and eventually became an apprentice to a conjurer. He continues in this function for several years, until he finally realizes the man’s magic is tricks and illusion. He decides to seek out a real yogi who can teach him real magic. Such is Kahn’s greed that he tells himself that he will have to pretend to be religious, as are all yogis, and that he fully intends to use what he learns to get rich, despite how a yogi would despise this goal. He sets out on a quest and eventually does find his yogi. He learns many things and does amass some wealth. He ends up working with a theater troupe, using his ability to see with his vision blocked (through walls, with his eyes bandaged, etc.) as a cornerstone act, throwing knives and shooting bullets at an assistant.
This is how he meets Dr. John Cartwright, who will come to write the story Henry Sugar reads in the library. Kahn comes to the local hospital for a professional bandaging for his eyes, as having such lends authenticity to his act. The doctor tests him in various ways and is utterly convinced. After Kahn’s troupe’s show that night, Dr. Cartwright asks if he can write down Kahn’s story and history for a medical journal. Kahn agrees and launches into his full life story.
So begins a story-within-a-story-within-a-story… When Henry Sugar has read the whole of Kahn’s tale, he is convinced that he can learn to do these things, too. He believes that doing so will allow him to amass an even more ridiculous fortune by scamming casinos. He ends up being right… Yet somewhere along the way, he loses interest in money just for money’s sake and, on the advice of a policeman, decides to use this ability to fund a series of orphanages.
So… We end up with a social critique on the wealthy, a tale of a Hindu man’s quest to gain riches through yogic discipline, the story of a doctor who is fascinated by the Hindu man’s abilities, and then the story of how a rich playboy becomes an unlikely Robin Hood figure. As I said, there is so much going on in this story, and it’s wonderfully-written to boot. Between Dahl’s able description and his interesting jabs through the fourth wall, I was totally caught up all the way through.
This ranks very near the top of the stories I’ve read for the Deal Me In challenge this year, and I highly recommend it.