The antihero of The Impressionist
, Hari Kunzru's daringly ambitious first novel, is half English and half Indian. In the Raj of the 1920s, the racial and social divides are enormous, but Pran Nath is able to bridge them, crossing from one side to another in a series of reinventions of his own personality. He begins as the spoiled child of an Indian lawyer, but circumstances thrust him out of his pampered adolescence into the teeming and dangerous life of the streets. After a bewildering period as one of the pawns in Machiavellian political and sexual scheming in the decadent court of a minor Maharajah, he escapes to Bombay. There he is taken up by a half-demented Scottish missionary and his wife, but Pran Nath prefers to slope off to the city's red-light district whenever he can. During a time of riot and bloodshed, the chance of re-creating himself as an English schoolboy destined for public school and Oxford presents itself, and he takes it. But this is not his final transformation.
In certain ways Kunzru is almost too ambitious. There is so much crammed onto the pages of The Impressionist that some of it, almost inevitably, doesn't work as well as it might. However, as the shapeshifting Pran Nath moves from one identity to another, knockabout farce mixes with satire, social comedy with parody. And beneath the comic exuberance and linguistic invention, there is an intelligent and occasionally moving examination of notions of self, identity, and what it means to belong to a class or society. --Nick Rennison, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
re-pub buzz about this impressive debut includes a record $1.8-million book deal and predictions of literary renown for its 30-year-old author. Charting the bizarre and picaresque journey of a chameleon-like figure from India to England to Africa, Kunzru keenly explores themes of racial and ethnic identity and overweening British pride. Until 1918, his 15th year, spoiled Pran Nath believes that he is the son of a wealthy Kashmiri merchant and a disturbed woman, Amrita, who died giving birth to him. When the housekeeper reveals that he is actually an Englishman's child, and thus a despised half-breed, he's thrown out on the street. After an involuntary stay in a brothel, a stint as a servant in the depraved household of the Nawab of Fatehpur, and a sojourn at a Bombay missionary's home, he moves on to England, where he pretends to be an orphaned heir, Jonathan Bridgeman. With each identity he assumes, the hero strives to become more and more like a pure Englishman and to hide his "tainted blood." As Bridgeman, Pran goes through Brideshead-era Oxford and falls in love with a seductive heartbreaker, Astarte Chapel. When she dumps him, he despairingly joins an anthropological expedition to the Fotse tribe in Africa; in the plot's most clever twist, he comes full circle with his real father's life. While the initial chapters are somewhat heavy-handed, and the plot stalls in its overfamiliar satire of the Oxford aesthetes, the African chapters exude a Paul Bowles-like power, and the seamlessly composed, vividly exotic set pieces exhibit an energy and density not usually found in debut fiction. London talents like Kunzru and Zadie Smith suggest that something like the Latin American boom of the '60s is happening in England. Author tour; rights sold in France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and U.K. (Apr.)Forecast: Kunzru's audacious version of the everyman antihero should establish his literary credentials, and his fast-moving plot should attract readers who like a good yarn. His experience as host of an English TV show should spin in the media, and Dutton's aggressive ad campaign will likely move the book toward the bestseller list.
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