The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 7, 2002

The impressionistic nuances of Hari Kunzru
Adam Mars-Jones

The Impressionist
by Hari Kunzru, Hamish Hamilton, London. Pages 496 13

THERE are bags of talent to be found in Hari Kunzru's rather hyped first novel, but they're compact in size and oddly distributed through the book. Perhaps packets of talent would be a more accurate description, packets or pockets, emptied out selectively over favoured minor characters, withheld from the hero.

Kunzru gives his central character a magical-realist flourish of a conception, the wordless coupling, in a deserted dacoits' cave during the first, furious monsoon of 1903, of a spoiled Indian girl and a half-drowned British forestry expert. After that, he's pretty much on his own, trying to piece together a life from the fragments he's been given. He is called Pran Nath at birth, becomes Jonathan Bridgeman and ends the book with no name.

The crucial part of his make-up is a fair skin that lets him pass as white as long as he learns the right lessons (length of shirt-sleeve, nuance of accent). 'Stitch a personality together. Calico arms. Wooden head. A hat and a set of overheard opinions. How perfectly impossible it is to grow a good lawn in India. The positive moral effects of team sports. The unspeakable vileness of Mr Gandhi, and the lack of hygiene of just about everything. Lay them out one by one, like playing patience.' The structure of the book is episodic, but since the hero is largely at the mercy of events the result is like a picaresque without a picaro, the necessary catalytic rogue. Pran Nath is the mildest sort of opportunist; when he eventually acquires a privileged identity, it isn't as a result of some Talented Mr Ripley-style machinations. He simply steps into a vacancy unexpectedly arisen.


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.

An epigraph 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.

Whether or 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.

Roughly 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.

Throughout 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.

The Africa 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 speckled heifer.'

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 years.