Hari comes 'ome
ANURADHA ROY looks at Hari Kunzru's `epochal debut' as The Impressionist.
EAGER parents of nubile daughters from Patna to Pune, Jammu to Juhu, here's the London boy of your dreams. The British newspaper Telegraph confirms he is "Handsome, 32, with soulful eyes, and a sensitive manner ..." Never mind the English mother, the father is a genuine Kashmiri Pandit, a respectable doctor who made sure Son visited Home and met Cousins. Fair skinned boy, Oxford-first, earning steady salary as music critic. And having million dollars in royalty advance.
Publishers British and American, Turkish and Finnish, and in many other languages besides have put lots of their money on The Impressionist, a novel that attempts an ambitious over-the-shoulder, lips curled, cheeky look at Race, Identity, Empire. These keywords, together with a young face, have shrewd books people reflexively reaching for their chequebooks.
Beating competing publishers in the auction for such a book is only the first part of the battle. The next is the selling. For weeks before the book came, sheafs of papers did: advance reviews, pictures of a man with the suggestion of a mocking smile, the dates of his visit, would you like to interview him, and for more details please go to hari kunzru dot com.
Efficient marketing machines aim for hard sales; reticence will not do: the jacket describes the book without irony as an "epochal debut".
A flash flood sends deodhar trees coursing down a nameless Indian desert and, in this fantastic, primal landscape, an English forester is rescued by a doped-out Indian bride-to-be. Wordless, fierce copulation in a cave lays the seed for the hero, Pran Nath. The Englishman dies, the bride goes on to marry her groom, a hygiene-crazed Kashmiri lawyer. She dies in childbirth leaving behind the wondrous-white Pran Nath, prince of the mansion. Once the true source of his amazing whiteness is revealed, however, Pran is out on the street scrounging alongside pi dogs. Survival dictates that Pran go through a series of reincarnations in one lifetime some enforced and some strategic.
Sometimes he has to be two people at the same time, sometimes two sexes at the same time. In a baroque nod to Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday, he is sold to the Nawab of Fatehpur as a sari-tangled transvestite named Rukhsana, his job being to seduce the local power, a Major Privett-Clampe. The Major calls Pran Clive, dresses him as an English schoolboy, teaches him to recite poems ("It's whence, not vence, you nincompoop!") and buggers him to cries of "Tally-ho" on a bed that "groans with the effort of maintaining its structural integrity".
Escaping from Fatehpur, Pran is adopted by a Scottish missionary couple in a Bombay slum. They call him Robert and he becomes an anomalous creature: a servant treasured as a foster son, assisting in the man's anthropometric research and the woman's theosophy and seances. Off-time, he calls himself Pretty Bobby and wanders the streets in sharp suits pimping and running errands for friendly neighbourhood whores.
Further down the story he carries off a coup by successfully posing as an Englishman, Jonathan Bridgeman; he goes to England, and inheriting the real Jonathan Bridgeman's considerable fortune, does Oxford, painstakingly painting his mind and soul an English white all the while. He ends life in Africa, living out the bewilderment of the astrologer who had drawn his chart at birth: "How could so many delusions lead to their opposite, the dissolution of delusion?"
Things are never what they seem, delusion is all. Pran thinks he is a true son but is a bastard, he is a boy but is forced to become a girl, he feels brown, but is thought white. And it's not just Pran. Many of the other characters in the book harbour similar confusions of identity. His Bombay "guardian"' Elspeth Macfarlane becomes Mme. Garnier or Ambaji as the occasion demands; preferring Robert to be a Hindu boy, she calls him Chandra. Mr. Macfarlane, a soapbox missionary obsessive about race and purity of blood, is tormented by the shameful memory of his illegitimate half-Assamese daughter. As the narrative demonstrates the futility of trying to pin down transparent, slippery, living things, many of the characters stubbornly order life through botany, anthropometrics, and anthropology.
The Fatehpur and Bombay sections of the book would make a reasonable number of readers sit up and take notice. Every well-loved trope of Empire shikar, princes, English Fortitude, Efficiency is stood on its head and mocked. The comic set pieces, like the tiger and duck shoots, and the British Resident Wyndham Braddock's elephant parade the day after the Jallianwalla Bagh shooting ("What a day to make a state visit...Smile and wave.") are entertaining send-ups. Bombay glitters like a kind of tawdry Monte Carlo as its streets grumble with nationalist protest.
But somewhere along Pran's journeys we get exhausted, and so, one senses, does Kunzru. The overblown narrative energy in evidence early in the book begins to wilt like the impotent Nawab of Fatehpur's uncooperative organ. The Oxford section is a watery Brideshead of beautiful people trying to be clever, the satire straining for some punch. The ironies steadily become too knowing, too obvious, yet not enough to emerge on the other side, subtle. Dialogue, not Kunzru's strong point, becomes painfully laboured. Questions of race and uncertain identities are masticated into stringy chewing gum.
It doesn't make it easier that most of the characters, including the hero, are like shadow puppets. Feeling something for characters in a novel is an unfashionable literary demand, but it does help when the book is about 500 pages long. The digressions into subsidiary characters' pasts convey no sense of different times or lives either. By the time Bridgeman reaches Fotseland, Africa, in a James Frazer meets Raiders of the Lost Ark section, it doesn't seem to matter if his fears are proved right and his white flesh feeds a hungry cannibal or two.
Which brings us back in a full circle, much like the novel, to the beginning. Perhaps marketing machines do need some reticence. Too much might just become far too much. This is not an "epochal debut": plenty of better books, including better first books, have been written in this "epoch". This one has its moments, some of them wonderful. Sometimes the language knocks you between the eyes. Sometimes.
The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru, Hamish Hamilton, p.481, £7.50.
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