Thursday, July 25, 2002

a life in black and white

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in July 2002).

The Impressionist, By Hari Kunzru. E P Dutton, $24.95

WHEN HARI KUNZRU turns Orientalism on its head, the effect can be hilarious. "Ah, the mystic Occident! Land of wool and cabbage and lecherous round-eyed girls!" his protagonist reflects en route to England.

Hari Kunzru can spin a yarn. The hero, or anti-hero, of his debut novel, The Impressionist, has a gorgeous face, several names and no core character. He starts out as Pran Nath Razdan, the child of a mixed-race union between a wandering Englishman and a Kashmiri woman on her way to Agra to get married. The Englishman dies immediately after the encounter, and Pran's mother dies in childbirth, leaving the boy to be raised by her husband.

When a servant reveals who Pran's father is, he is thrown out of the house at the age of 15 to make his own way on the streets of India. The boy spends the remainder of the novel trying to pass off as white, only to realize that his quest to become the most pukka sahib of them all has left him neither black nor white -- just empty.

Pran first seeks refuge in a brothel. The Nawab of Fathepur buys him to use as bait, to trap the paedophiliac Major Augustus Privett-Clampe, an officer of the British Crown. Privett-Clampe rapes the boy, names him Clive, dresses him up as a schoolboy and makes him recite poems like Casabianca and Gunga Din.

"You've got some white blood in you," Privett-Clampe says. "The thing is, boy, you have to learn to listen to it. It's calling to you through all the black, telling you to stiffen your resolve. If you listen to what the white is telling you, you can't go wrong."

Pran escapes to Bombay and, heeding Privett-Clampe's advice, passes himself off as an English lad called Pretty Bobby. When an Englishman called Jonathan Bridgeman dies in a riot, our hero takes not only his name but also his whole identity, and travels to England to claim his inheritance. He goes on to study at Oxford, finally becoming a "proper" Englishman. "How easy it is to slough off one life and take up another!" he ruminates.

Things begin to go wrong for Jonathan when Astarte Chapel, the woman he loves, rejects him because he's too English. A dilettante, she is in love with a black man called Sweets. ". . . He actually shot someone once . . . Things like that happen to Negroes. That's why they have soul," she says. When Jonathan asks her if she would love him if he "wasn't so -- white," she replies, "But you are, Johnny," proving his lie an unfortunate success. Astarte Chapel finds him boring.

Readers too will find the protagonist's apparent blandness problematic. Kunzru takes pains to emphasize that the protagonist's lack of personality is purposeful. He writes that the impressionist "hints at transparency, as if on the other side, on the inside, there is something to be discovered."

But the impressionist is soulless. Even when he travels to the "heart of darkness" in Fotseland, Africa, to study his "whiteness," the darker inside we discover is hardly worth the journey.

Most of the attendant characters are not fully drawn, given -- like Privett-Clampe -- to shouting "Tally Ho," "On! On! On!" and "View Hallooo" in the throes of sexual passion. This cartoonish levity may fall flat with some readers, as might some of the banal wink-and-nudge Orientalisms uttered by a drug-addled playboy, Prince Firoz, who, for example, says, ". . . if Mohammed cannot go to the Riviera, then the Riviera must come to Mohammed."

There are funny moments, however, particularly when Kunzru shows us the West through Eastern eyes. For instance, when the person charged with organizing a tiger hunt for a group of Englishmen cages and drugs two tigers before the hunt, another character chortles, "When the Angrezi (English) come to hunt there are some things it is better not to leave to chance."

"This degree of predestination might disappoint some of the guests," muses the hunt's organizer in response. "However, their hosts take the view that politics demands certain sacrifices from sportsmanship."

A more experienced novelist would have lent muscle to these sly takes on colonialism and colour, which appear only in glimpses in the novel. The Impressionist, which lacks a coherent theme or a character of compelling humanity, is entertaining but strangely empty.