There is no agony quite like that of a young unpublished poet. Ananda is a 22-year-old undergraduate living in a noisy student flat in London. The racket being made, “the muffled bassline”, comes from the crowd upstairs. They are having fun, unlike him – alone and miserable and homesick for India. He misses the sun. “He loved light – London had taught him this fact. University had taught him little in comparison.” He realised “that he adored light – and sound. And by sound it was the street he meant, flowing inside in a shallow current through the crack beneath the raised windowpane.”
Ananda’s thoughts are intense, his sensibility heightened. He does not like other people’s noise, yet he also dislikes silence. Above all he depends on his lively mother, Uma, who has recently visited him. After briefly having a male room-mate he is on his own, alone with his hopes and fears, his needs and his complex family history. Small wonder that he needs the reassuring sounds seeping in from the outside: they help keep his woes at bay.
He is not the first of his family to have undertaken the great journey to London. His father, Satish, had done the same 30 years earlier. He had been later joined there by the girl who had waited six years for him, the girl who became Ananda’s mother. Both had returned to Calcutta. But there was also Uncle Radhesh, the gifted one, considered, if only by the family, to be a genius. It was he who remained in London, opting to sustain a myth of sorts, always ready to support his relatives, while living in squalor in a Hampstead basement.
Inside Ananda's head is an ongoing tension between his dreams of poetry and his need to masturbate. It is all very elegant; the Indian writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri is a master of the slow-moving meditation, laced with precise exasperation. Ananda's pained exasperation is very funny. Within pages Chaudhuri has painted a precise portrait of a young man at the mercy of his many frustrations. It is 1985, a single July day in London in Margaret Thatcher's England. Ananda needs to get through the hours until he visits his uncle, which he usually does once or twice a week.
Tom and Jerry
Aside from these interludes, life is not easy; after all, aside from sex – which both fascinates and terrifies him – Ananda intends to be the next Philip Larkin. The problem is that, for all his love of literature, and his awareness of being a poet, Ananda has discovered that he does not much like anything on his degree course. Anglo-Saxon bewilders him. He compares Thomas Hardy's cruelly fated dramas to the fraught struggles of Tom and Jerry. When his tutor suggests that he read Moll Flanders Ananda is shocked. He wonders, "Had he read the Classics Illustrated version? Or was that Silas Marner? His spirits sank. So unadulteratedly and classically English . . . He had a premonition of dullness. Walls of prose."
It becomes even funnier when the tutor mentions Gulliver's Travels. His mind screams silently in protest: "What! Was Mr Davidson sending him back to school as a punishment? This he'd definitely encountered in Classics Illustrated where the comedy of scale had been shrewdly exploited by the artist; the stranded, long-haired body in knickerbockers pinned to the earth – every inch of him – by minute threads. Beautifully drawn. Ananda's mother used to lovingly call him 'Lilliput' when he was a toddler. In Bengali, the word had become a noun referring not to the place but to its people."
There is also the difficulty of having so many English people with whom to contend. “The English were a strange lot; even if they didn’t acknowledge your existence, they made you feel on display. How did they manage to do that? Their books advocated the virtues of observation – but they didn’t look at you directly. If you sat opposite an English person, you may as well not be there – that was English politeness, or the rules of culture.”
For all the jokes about literature this is a most literary novel. Yet it is witty, effortlessly fluid and far less contrived than Rabih Alameddine's recent, determinedly literary National Book Award finalist, An Unnecessary Woman. As the title Odysseus Abroad suggests – as do the many clues gracefully scattered throughout the delicate nonplot – Chaudhuri is paying his own minor homage to Joyce's great novel Ulysses and, as is obvious, to Homer. Equally, though, the novel that shadows the proceedings is Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925).
Chaudhuri has also written a novel that brilliantly juxtaposes his previous work. That said, it can certainly stand in its own right as a comedic study of displacement that never allows its sophistication to flounder into petulance. It is far closer to the majestic RK Narayan in its intelligent humour than it is to VS Naipaul. Chaudhuri is a singular writer. He defies form; instead he has perfected an observational fiction based on insight and memory.
This new novel is his sixth, if one counts his beautiful and haunting debut, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), as a novel instead of a novella. It too is the story of an only child. Yet it is very different: it is a mood piece in which a boy sets off from his Bombay home to visit his uncle in Calcutta. That book was followed in 1993 by Afternoon Raag– a more youthful version of this new book, in that Afternoon Raag centres on another privileged Indian student attempting to make sense of being in England, while he mourns the death of his mother, a musician. But in Odysseus Abroad a mature irony undercuts the melancholy. It does not lessen the achievement. Here the cultural displacement is being explored through additional experience without the dominance of a personal tragedy.
Freedom Song (1995, 1998) is set during a period of civil unrest in which two Calcutta households are more concerned with romance. In A New World (2000) Jayojit, having left India for a successful career in the United States, returns home to visit his parents after his marriage fails. He brings his young son with him. It is a subtle and very human story. Chaudhuri's most ambitious work to date, The Immortals (2009), takes as its central theme music and how it affects the lives of a group of troubled characters. The author is overly concerned with plot, yet he knows how to tell an intriguing story.
Odysseus Abroad has a mildly wayward life of its own. It is a pleasure to read. Ananda is, thankfully, not quite as petulant as he could have been; he is still very much a sheltered boy attempting to grow up. His displacement is never more than irritating for him, and not at all for the reader. Uncle Radhesh is a modern-day Don Quixote.
For all the calm, unhurried artistry of Amit Chaudhuri, it is sustained by a fierce intelligence. This is a low-key, almost playful work, cerebral without being affected, and it never loses touch with the ordiinary. His canvas is narrow, that of a middle-class Indian suspended between cultures. Chaudhuri’s understated art lies in his perception of displacement at its most subtle.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent