Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri: A short, compelling novel

Every encounter and remark seems charged with significance

Author: Amit Chaudhuri
ISBN-13: 9780571360345
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Guideline Price: £14.99

“ ‘It’s odd, just how many of the political poems are about things you find in the home — even in the kitchen. Matchsticks, burnt bread, boiled rice.’ ‘Rotten tooth!’ he said grandly.’” The interplay of public and private worlds is a source of interest for the unnamed narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel, Sojourn. A foreign academic who has come to Berlin to take up a largely ceremonial role at a university, he has little actual work to do and instead spends his time adrift in the city, going for dinners with an exiled Bangladeshi poet, having puzzling conversations with his cleaner and saying yes to the occasional date with an enigmatic woman called Birgit.

Faqrul, the poet, acts as the narrator’s guide for much of the book. He shows him around the different districts, tells him where to buy clothes, brings him out for dinner. Above all, he is good company, intellectual stimulation, for narrator and reader. They parse issues of art, identity, history. Faqrul’s spirited assertions are a foil to the narrator’s cool reflections, the distance with which he views his new home, the considered perspective of an outsider. This distance will morph in later parts into downright dislocation, but even at his most discombobulated, the narrator never seems fazed: “I couldn’t decide where I was. I wasn’t confused. It’s just that I didn’t feel enough of a divide — between present and past, them and myself.”

As he traverses the city, its fractured lines and history, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company, like being transported to Berlin, without the hassle of airports and fares. There is the sense of a man on the cusp of some discovery, awaiting answers, to questions either habitual or profound. Where to buy a coat for the cold weather? And what is the meaning of life? Hilary Mantel has compared Chaudhuri to Proust, calling him “a miniaturist” who specialises in the art of the moment. Sojourn is full of these artful moments, a short, compelling book where every encounter and remark seems charged with significance.

Over a 30-year career, Chaudhuri has published essays, fiction and poetry, generally to great acclaim. He is the author of seven novels, including Friend of My Youth.


The tone of Sojourn is ruminative, almost laconic, but the observations throughout the book startle. Chaudhuri is renowned for his style, the clarity of his prose. But he is also a master of figurative language. The book is rich in imagery that estranges then instantly connects: “Because he was a smoker, the laughter was like a kettle’s hiss. It filled the dark space ... I tried on shoes lined with fur. The tips were rounded. They emanated a native sorrow ... We have an appetite for home, as flies do for food. We find it unerringly.”

The precise prose is encased in a nimble structure that moves gracefully between scenes. There are shades of Rachel Cusk, particularly Outline, in the way the narrator records objects, people, moments in time. The alienation of a foreigner in a European city brings to mind Chris Power’s A Lonely Man and the fiction of Greg Baxter. In Sojourn, Berlin is mysterious, impenetrable, surprising. The proprietor of an Indian restaurant recounts the fall of the wall in 1989: “‘None of us knew,’ he said, ‘that it would end. When it did end the next day, it felt inevitable.’” The narrator lives in a university-funded apartment in an uninspiring suburb: “The dullness was historical. Dahlem had been created by the Americans to exemplify suburban tranquillity.”

There is a similar distinctness to character. Faqrul is “a man who liked to share. He gave you food; he stood next to you in solidarity when you tried on jackets”. Dialogue is full of wry humour, as with this exchange between the non-German-speaking narrator and his non-English-speaking cleaner: “I echoed her grave, matter-of-fact expression with a nod and knitted eyebrows, since there was no question of disagreement. We only agreed on everything. I’ve never had conversations in which I’ve been in so much harmony with the person I’m talking to.”

When Faqrul disappears in the latter half of the book, the narrator must find his own way in the city, a journey that is not without casualty. The result is an intriguing, thought-provoking read on the pleasures and perils of displacement: “This morning, I don’t know my name. Half an hour goes by. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I overhear the buzz of other names — Oe; Böll Professor. Not mine. It’ll come to me.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts