TALKATIVE MAN, A NOVEL OF MALGUDI by R. K. Marayan (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $15.95; 123 pp.). "Talkative Man" is the 13th of R. K. Nayaran's novels set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. I don't know about you, but I am one to consider 13 an unlucky number. And there is nothing about this 13th novel to make me change my mind.
The story is simple enough. A stranger appears in Malgudi and Talkative Man (TM to his friends), a self-appointed reporter always poking his nose where it doesn't belong while making much more of himself and his stories than either deserves, ends up with the man living in his spare room. The stranger calls himself Dr. Rann and claims to have just arrived from Timbuktu, where he was involved in some sort of project, perhaps with the United Nations. And what he needs now is some peace and quiet so he may finish writing his book.
Not only is the man a phony, but he is a philanderer. A former wife appears and fills TM in on Rann's history. Rann pursues a young college girl who is taken in by his worldliness, but TM arranges for the abandoned wife to return and kidnap Rann. And that's about where the story peters out.
Indian literature would not be the same without R. K. Narayan. He is in his early 80s and has two dozen books to his credit. He probably has a following that anxiously awaits this latest in the long Malgudi series. But for the initiate, don't bother. This is thin, weak writing, more like sketching, and works best when the reader has a thorough background on Malgudi. Go back to the beginning of this lovely man's career when his powers were clear, focused. Then work your way forward. If you find you are an R. K. Narayan fan, then you can read "Talkative Man" with a forgiving, knowing eye.