puzzling story of an Indian writer in Berlin

The most difficult question raised by modernism is what it is to have a taste for the fabric. What are you looking for when you line up with a thousand other punters for an exhibition of doodles by Picasso or a new production by Lulu? How sincere is a person who claims to have been amused and moved by Odysseus?

A plausible hypothesis is that to love modernism is to love being perplexed most of the time. Indian writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri is one of the most eloquent contemporary champions of modernism. In his last work of non-fiction, a refreshing and upsetting essay on Indian classical music, Finding the Raga, he offered a very illuminating and concise definition: modernism, he wrote, was “the destruction of recognizability”.

So far, much of his fiction has sought to at least maintain the illusion of recognizability. His early short stories, elegant studies of bourgeois life in Calcutta, were hailed by Hilary Mantel as “masterpieces of intimate observation.” Read in the light of his most recent writings, they turn out to be stranger and riskier than their description makes them sound. In their obsession with “moments” rather than narratives, and their renunciation of most of the characteristic pleasures of the novel (plot, event), they risked leaving most readers bored or mystified.

In Chaudhuri’s recent fiction, the experiments have become riskier. In Ulysses Abroad, a very funny book consciously playing with Homer and Joyce, a Bengali student in London walks with an eccentric uncle. Little happens, but much is observed, much felt. In his latest novel, Friend of My Youth, a character called “Amit Chaudhuri” declares himself a false novelist, a traitor to his chosen form: “when I can, [I] undermine the genre that – or for which I work”. The process continues with his new short story, Sojourn. But the new book is considerably – and most likely deliberately – more obscure than anything Chaudhuri has written before.

A middle-aged Indian writer arrived in Berlin in the fall of 2005 to take up a visiting professorship. He hardly speaks German. The city, loaded with a history that he only half understands, disconcerts him. It is taken up by a poet, an atheist in exile from the Islamists in his native Bangladesh. He begins something that isn’t quite an affair with a breathless indophile, Birgit, despite her neurotic distrust of “Europeans who ‘love’ India.”

Chaudhuri’s narrator is obsessed with his apartment’s toilet, “mostly a slab, like a dissecting table”, on which the apartment’s previous occupant, Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, had to sit. He is on the lookout, vigilant: he perceives the “fineness” of Pakistani migrants, the “stealth” of the women who solicit at the entrances of the U-Bahn, and the “pain” emanating from the local trains. He tries out new identities, eating Turkish rice pudding despite not liking it: “Berlin gives me the right to experiment.” The German words – “’schön’, ‘ach so’, ‘danke’” begin to sound to him “exactly like Bengali”.

Chaudhuri has written in the past about his admiration for Christopher Isherwood’s style Goodbye to Berlin, “its deceptive transparency, its constant and discreet melody”. Isherwood achieves its effect, Chaudhuri surmises, by never once explaining the reason his narrator is in Berlin: his sexual interest in working-class men. What is left out – what must be left out – makes what remains urgent, tense, alive.

I suspect Chaudhuri is striving for something similar here. There’s something just a tiny bit weird, or quirky, about its narrator, but I had a hard time figuring out what. Little about his quirk is recognizable.

His narrator has a family, possibly in India, but they are not with him, a fact he describes, in a peculiar turn of phrase, as “a godsend”. But the absence of a family never pushes him to productivity. Any human contact only seems to lead him deeper into his own increasingly fragmented mind, a fragmentation that reflects the characteristics of the ever-divided city whose streets he wanders.

I found the effect of all the obliquity and suggestion disconcerting, as Chaudhuri no doubt intended. The elegant suggestiveness of the writing, its intelligence and perspicacity, encourage you to turn the pages. But a reader will have to enjoy, or at least be comfortable with, being perplexed.


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