The figure of what used to be
called the half-breed in a society that demands clarity of
categories has tragic potential (as in Thomas Keneally's The
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) but here the theme is played out
more ambiguously. Almost the first thing we are told about
Pran Nath is that 'the pearl faculty, the faculty which
secretes selfhood round some initial grain' atrophies in him.
It's as if being conceived in a flood has disqualified him
from solid status.
But if the
hero of The Impressionist is hollow despite all his various
efforts at assimilation, it isn't because he is a copy, but
because he is copying people who are hollow already. In its
own way, this is a comfortable irony, now that we take it for
granted that identity is as much performance as essence,
liquid in the first place.
from Kim is an efficient way of serving notice that
Raj-bashing as such is not part of the book's agenda. The
Empire, indifferent though it is to the discontents of its
subjects, concerns itself with a broader agenda than power,
with irrigation and the rational distribution of agricultural
resources, while the Nawab of Fatehpur, where Pran Nath
arrives as a teenager, worries only about the throne passing
to his Europeanised brother unless he can produce an heir.
The tone of
the Fatehpur section is uneasily farcical, more influenced by
the Carry On films than Kipling, and much the weakest part of
the book. At one stage, two separate plots to manipulate the
Crown's representative, the absurd Major Privett-Clampe, by
having boys seduce him and then blackmailing him with
photographs, converge on a tiger hunt, a Tom Sharpe setpiece
of diarrhoea and drunken gunfire.
Only a little
later, Kunzru hits his stride, when Pran Nath arrives in
Bombay and is taken in by a Scottish missionary and his
estranged wife. It's in Bombay, named Robert by the
Macfarlanes but known on the Falkland Road as 'Pretty Bobby',
that he learns to exploit the ambiguity of his looks.
not he's a different person, this section could be a different
book. In particular, the 20 pages devoted to the Macfarlanes'
back story, describing how such an ill-assorted couple came to
Bombay, sets a standard of sympathy and insight which Kunzru
is hard put to sustain.
two-thirds of the way through the book, Robert becomes
Jonathan and travels to England ('the mystic Occident! Land of
wool and cabbage and lecherous round-eyed girls!') to be
educated. Part of what he studies, naturally, is Britain
itself, where even London pigeons, 'fat and grey and rat-like
though they are, appear to be coursing with something imperial
and rare, some pigeon-essence that powers their strut and
their pompous inquisitiveness'. He picks up academic subjects
and moderate social skills, but other things also: a
hysterical conventionality, anti-Semitism.
the book, Hari Kunzru has pursued an odd strategy of
alternately arousing sympathy for his hero and quashing it. He
will fill the reader in on things that Pran Nath/ Robert/
Jonathan can't know, but seems dim for not noticing, like the
fact that Professor Chapel the anthropologist is actually an
obsessive-compulsive who only does fieldwork when his
accumulated tics make Oxford unbearable. Towards the end of
the book,this strategy reaches its own odd climax. Jonathan
agrees to accompany Professor Chapel on an expedition to
Fotseland, though his motive is entirely to do with the
professor's lovely, capricious daughter, Astarte.
where the book ends represents for Jonathan the return of
everything he has repressed. As in Paul Bowles's The
Sheltering Sky, Africa is an emptiness that shows up the
emptiness of those who come to experience it. Hari Kunzru has
taken the trouble to invent a plausible way of life for the
Fotse people, based on a labyrinthine exchange culture.
But he has
also signalled in advance that the whole thing is an elaborate
spoof of the stock market. The resemblance of the name Fotse
to a well-known index of trading performance is confirmed by
the mention of two others: '... the substance of a major song
cycle... is the enumeration of the canny transactions through
which Lifi wins the hand of the sky-princess Neshdaqa by
leveraging a minuscule holding in her uncle's favourite
It's hard to share Jonathan's
sufferings in 1920s Fotseland, knowing that he's safely
enclosed in a joke that won't even make sense for another 70