Stuart Walton reviews Amit Chaudhuri’s nebulous, ethically troubling new novel.
Amit Chaudhuri, Sojourn (Faber, 2022), 126pp.
Ananda, the central character of Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (2015), finds the indissoluble strangeness of everything confirmed when making a cup of tea with a teabag:
He stirred the milk in the mug, till, turning from clear but dark to pale brown and neutrally uniform, the water had become tea-like, the spoon negotiating the vortex it had set in motion by constantly evading, and sometimes colliding into, the submerged leviathan tea bag. Then he’d retrieved it from the pool on to his spoon, at once swollen and unresistant, dead but still smoking, an incredibly ugly thing. Unable to look at it, he tossed it into the bin.
What could be interpreted as the emigrant Indian student’s nonplussed encounter with an alien culture, however, is only part of the story. Chaudhuri’s characters all have problems seeing through the veil of illusions that constitutes modern reality. Their encounters with close relatives, such as Ananda’s uncle, who has lived in a crummy bedsit in Belsize Park for decades, are similarly beset by levels of mutual inscrutability that recall the world of the postwar British novel, or the early dramas of Pinter. Things are predictable, like the cyclical structure of conversations, but simultaneously utterly mysterious, in that nobody fully understands what anybody else might feel.
The delicate complexity of these narratives, in which worlds of untapped affect might lie dormant, barely disturbed, beneath the surfaces of the everyday is what has kept Chaudhuri at the forefront of Anglophone Indian writing since the early 1990s. His first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), recounts the transformed world of experience that ten-year-old Sandeep discovers on holiday from Bombay at his uncle’s home in Calcutta (a time in which the nomenclature of India’s cities has not yet been reformed). Nothing of any great note happens, but everything is new. In Afternoon Raag (1993), a process of transcultural shift has been initiated. An unnamed young Indian student at Oxford gives an account of his progress through university life, intercut with memories of home. Again, no great drama emerges, other than the implicitly conflicted strands of present experience and memory, the hazy intimation that transplantation to another culture may be changing the narrator in unsuspected ways.
When there are comparative cultural notes, they can emerge with a heavier touch than the habitual narrative tone, more anthropologically certain in their bafflement:
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 well not be there – that was English politeness, or the rules of the culture. It wasn’t obliviousness. They did practise the art of looking in secret…
This could be Bill Bryson. It rings true but falls short at the same time. Are there any people anywhere on earth who aren’t a ‘strange lot’ to the outsider? What are the books that ‘advocate’ observation, as distinct from simply practising it? Virginia Woolf? The Origin of Species? There are different valences of politeness between the voluble acknowledgement of strangers on public transport and the English preference for undisturbed insularity in public, the engagement only on one’s own terms that results in nobody saying anything to anybody unless dire exigency impels them to it. Ananda is not making a simple point about racial othering. The English treat each other like this, too.
Chaudhuri’s latest novella, Sojourn, follows an Indian literary academic to Berlin, to take up a fixed-term residency as Heinrich Böll Professor at the university. He finds the accommodation he has been assigned rather more basic than he was promised, but manages to achieve an upgrade without antagonism. An exiled Bangladeshi poet whose blasphemous verse has landed him in trouble back home takes him under his wing. A German woman, Birgit, who wears a Muslim hijab, comes to one of his lectures and, subsequently, by the kind of demanding email that would make the more cautious hit ‘Delete’, forges a relationship with him. There is a little of the blank incomprehension that falls upon the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995), a classical pianist adrift in a foreign city who finds himself subjected to the amorphous structures of a bureaucracy bereft of even the sinister purpose or logic that Kafka’s characters face. And yet, for Chaudhuri’s Professor, there is no accompanying sense of menace, no suggestion that anything untoward will happen, assuming you remember not to make eye contact with the neo-Nazis.
One of the ethically troubling aspects of Sojourn is the unbearable lightness with which the Böll Professor assimilates the catastrophes of the German past. The Holocaust memorials (the stumbling stones with the names of the murdered set into the city’s pavements) are decorative emblems of a history that seems as distant as the Peasants’ Revolt. Navigating the streets and neighbourhoods of the sector of the city that had been the capital of the GDR, he is prompted to a shallow disquisition about the relative nature of happiness. There must have been some, after all, even in the direst of political misery, and in any case, the Soviet bloc provided the West with a paradigm against which it could measure itself. The Communist East reminded the West that it too was an alternative, a chosen system rather than being the default state into which, unmolested, human freedom would, in Hegelian fashion, resolve itself. ‘When freedom is the only reality,’ says the Professor, ‘you’re no longer free.’
These could be exemplary instances of dialectical thinking, except that cultural reflection can be all too prone to revert to idle chatter. Profundity might, after all, be just another of the peculiar modes into which communication occasionally slips, and slips out again. That, pre-eminently, is the focus of Chaudhuri’s writing. Meaning emerges haphazardly from ordinary encounters, scraps of conversation, but as quickly retreats into the unknowable hinterland from which it came. In his early work, there was a tendency to overworked metaphor that had at least an even chance of failing: ‘Her legs, like two romantic, indefinite paths on a mountainside, were lost in her sari’s vast landscape’. That feeling that whatever was intended hasn’t quite precipitated from the analogy has now vanished from the writing, so much so that the Professor, watching a DVD of an Indian film with Birgit, can assure himself that ‘Cliché is often the strongest way to convey a truth’. But how do we know when a cliché has crystallised? Contemplating the former glory and subsequent downfall of German answer to Harrods, KaDeWe, during the Nazi era, he muses, ‘weren’t department stores the century’s cathedrals?’, a reflection once articulated by the post-punk band, the Pop Group, in 1979.
A metaphor that recurs in Sojourn is that of the bridegroom, but it becomes perplexing through being applied in three entirely heterogeneous contexts. Faqrul, the Bangladeshi poet, ‘had a bridegroom’s thick skin’. The migrant workers who man the kiosks on Wittenbergplatz, the Professor notices, ‘received me with shy approval; the way bridegrooms are’. Towards the end, noting that virtually nobody addresses him by name, including Faqrul, he observes that this evasiveness seems ‘like a bridegroom is with his bride’. Bridegrooms are thick-skinned, but also shy and indirect. They may not care what you think, but are also circumspect on their wedding days, as though a wedding marked a marriage at the outset with all the equivocation and elusiveness that will follow.
Then, quite out of nowhere, the novella’s only real incident takes place. An accident befalls the Professor, leading to a loss of short-term memory and necessitating some unspecified medical treatment that leaves him with stitches. Barely has that transpired than the text fades out on a rapid diminuendo, an unconsummated relationship, a solitary walk back to the familiarity of the flat, a little chit-chat with the cleaner. Chaudhuri’s work has been notable, among other attributes, for its striking lack of melancholy. A European writer would find in the banalities of every day the existential evidence of time ticking on while the chance of any kind of fulfilment vaporises. This is not a problem that Chaudhuri’s narrators have hitherto been troubled by. And yet, the Berlin sojourn having no particular aim, the Professor’s spirits seem to falter. His devotion to routine, to a life of comforting predictability, ‘the paucity of choices, the familiar parameters’, suddenly seems a failure after all, the occasion for a closing self-indictment.
In another of those analogies that seems to land in the rough vicinity of an insight, rather than hitting a nail on its head, the narrator reflects, ‘We have an appetite for home, as flies do for food. We find it unerringly.’ Is there anything living that doesn’t have an appetite for food? No matter. It’s a thought that embraces a visiting Professor and an exiled poet alike in its warm simplicity. If cliché is indeed the strongest way to convey a truth, it may be that the truth itself has worn thin.
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.