There is no rest for the rootless

March 24, 2002|By Kay Chubbuck | By Kay Chubbuck,Special to the Sun

The Impressionist, by Hari Kunzru. Dutton. 383 pages. $24.95.

Born in the shadows of the Taj Mahal, Pran Nath Razdan is "the impressionist": a half-Indian, half-English boy who wanders through Hari Kunzru's first novel in an inconclusive search for his identity. Part parody, part pastiche and part picaresque, The Impressionist is the story of that journey, and of what it means never to belong.

We begin, appropriately, in the desert, as Pran's father, the perspiring Ronald Forrester, encounters the mad beauty Amrita on the way to her betrothal. A flash flood brings them together; Forrester even believes she is the spirit of the storm. After a wild coupling, he drowns, and she's left to marry the distinguished Kashmiri Pandit Amar Nath Razdan. Pran spends the first 15 years of his life believing this other man is his father. When an angry servant reveals he's not, Pandit dies on the spot in a bathtub full of onions. Pran is cast out onto Agra's streets -- and into his destiny as a wanderer.

As a street boy, Pran becomes Clive, drugged and hired out to men in a brothel. He's a pawn: part of a blackmailing ploy engineered by enemies of the Nawab of Fatehpur to catch the British administrator with his pants down. No tragedy, this: Kunzru populates these scenes with a slapstick circus of movie stars, picturewallahs, tigers and eunuchs, men "pickled in domestic whiskey" trying desperately to film lewd movies out in the jungle.

In time, of course, the impressionist escapes and makes his way to Bombay. There he becomes Robert by day, the foster-child of estranged missionaries, and Pretty Bobby by night, harlots' pimp and errand-boy. It is in Bombay, too, that the impressionist starts trying on Englishness as he tries on clothes: silk suits and boaters that let him "pass" as an Englishman through the doors of Bombay's expensive clubs. Indeed, it's as an Englishman that the impressionist stumbles upon his greatest chance: a passport and a ticket to London as the orphaned heir Jonathan Bridgeman, killed in a scuffle. As Bridgeman, the impressionist can go to England -- and to Oxford -- where he studies anthropology and falls in love.

Yet it is here that Kunzru's novel stumbles, spinning out little more than a standard variation on the English school story, in contrast to the liveliness of the earlier work. The pastiche alone is not the problem: Throughout, each chapter is written in a different style, mirroring the central character's metamorphosis. In England, though, the pastiche grows old, and in Africa it becomes exhausted. As the impressionist encounters the primitive and cannibalistic Fotse tribe -- counting their huts for a government census -- we are transported back to the Africa of Cecil Rhodes, and to a disturbingly racist writing.

Ultimately, the impressionist comes full circle, and we leave him where we found his father: wandering through the desert, adjusting "the hood of his burnous to shield his eyes from the sun." A long string of camels stretches out before him. There's no closure here, but that is Kunzru's point: There is no rest for men who don't belong. The implication is that the impressionist's identity, like the desert, will never be fixed: Even after we close the novel, he will continue to transform.

Kay Chubbuck is a lecturer at the Princeton Writing Program and previously was an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has published articles in Newsweek and other journals.

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