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The Impressionist

Just what kind of book Hary Kunzri's The Impressionist (Dutton, 2002) really is will probably not be clear until its author, first-timer Hari Kunzri, writes a few more novels. Then we'll be able to read back into this intriguing but elusive book the origin of Mr Kunzri's themes and styles. For the moment, it's enough to note that the author has taken the stinging satire of Evelyn Waugh, the brooding fatalism of Joseph Conrad, and the appraising eye of Anglo-Indian writers and made them all his own. He has probably learned a thing or two from Dickens, too, but I wouldn't know - I haven't been able to finish any of Dickens's novels since I was twelve years old. 

What Waugh, Conrad, and Anglo-Indian writers (Indian writers writing in English) all have in common, abundantly, is the outsider's perspective. We usually think of outsiders as excluded persons, their cold faces pressed against the warm glass of comfortable acceptance, but I think rather that being an outsider is for some people - some writers especially (perhaps all) - an almost inborn condition, and that people who grow up feeling like outsiders eventually find worlds from which they will always be kept at arm's length. Some people, after all, feel like outsiders vis--vis their own families. Conrad could have written about Poland, Ukraine, or Russia, but choice to write in thoroughly foreign English. Much the same is true of Indian writers writing in English. (As for Waugh, he was at heart an eighteenth-century squire, deeply opposed to everything modern.) It's important to note the voluntary nature of this kind of outsider status. It is very different from that of openly oppressed minorities, say American blacks, who have no real alternative to persisting where they are. 

Mr Kunzri ought to be able to regard speaking English as an uncomplicated birthright, but although he was born in England, his father is an Indian (his mother an Englishwoman), and so people always want to know where he's really from - where, that is, outside of England. And that, perhaps, is what has inspired this adventurous tale of an actual imposter, also a 'half-breed.' The protagonist of 'The Impressionist' goes through several changes of name before he's thirty, each time so completely becoming the person that people think he is that none of his names suits him overall. He probably ought to be thought of as 'the impressionist,' but I shall simply call him the Hero. 

Although we are treated to the spectacle of the Hero's conception, his makes his first appearance as an unpleasantly spoiled fifteen year-old. 

Pran Nath is undeniably good looking. His hair has a hint of copper to it, which catches in the sunlight and reminds people of the hills. His eyes contain just a touch of green. His cheekbones are high and prominent, and across them, like an expensive drumhead, is stretched a covering of skin that is not brown, or even wheaten colored, but white. Pran Nath's skin is a source of pride to everyone. Its whiteness is not the nasty blue-blotched color of a fresh-off-the-boat Angrezi or the grayish pallor of a dying person, but a perfect milky hue, like that of teh marble the craftsmen chip into ornate screens down by the Taj-ganj. Kashmiris come from the mountains and are always fair, but Pran Nath's color is exceptional. It is proof, cluck the aunties, of the family's superior blood.

But this boy is already an imposter; the color of his skin has nothing to do with the family's superior blood, which does not flow in his veins. As it happens, the blood in the veins of his putative father is raging with influenza, and the curious, if totally ineffectual, preventives that this fastidious Brahmin has devised for dealing with the plague make up the novel's first comic set piece. (Some readers may find the Hero's conception pretty funny, but I didn't laugh until it was over, and then a little anxiously.) The onion basket at the greengrocer's will never look quite the same to me. In fine Waugh style, this opening episode ends with our Hero out on his ear, as hapless as Paul Pennyfeather or Adam Symes-Fenwick. All by page 33. 

Within very few pages, the Hero comes fully to understand the advantage of being taken for English, but he won't be able to pull off the deception for a few years yet. That he should try to pass as English is as natural as wood's floating in water. He has the milky white skin and the chiseled good looks, and England has all the other attractions. In this, the Hero is a perfectly normal teenager, doing whatever it takes to get into the best crowd that will take him. The Hero does lack, it's true, the moral gravity of a settled character that even some children, and many adolescents possess, and so it would be mistaken to see him as a stand-in for every light-skinned Indian. But it is equally misguided to look for character in someone whose very identity has never been laid down. Identity, after all, may be the requisite grain about which the pearl of character can condense. At thek beginning of 'The Impressionist,' the Hero is nothing but a ragbag of inclinations; so far as character is concerned, there is no there there. 

What's interesting about this book, then, is character development not in the ordinary sense but as a sort of fetal process, a motion from Nothing to Something, so that at the end of the book, the Hero has more character than the English anthropologists and empire builders with whom he travels, in a grand homage to Conrad, into Darkest Africa. He has not, by this point, become utterly indistinguishable from an Englishman; his imposture, his not-quite-rightness, is betrayed by a host of minuscule mannerisms. But he has acquired the full weight of an English character, and then some. While his complacently unthinking colleagues fall back, more and more heavily, upon the stuff of their own presuppositions, the Hero wades deeper and deeper into doubt about the identity that he has worked so hard to forge. He has to, because to someone not born to it, the English character - the English character underpinning the Raj - increasingly makes no sense. 

Whether Kunzri intended his Hero's adventures to expose the nonsense with which the English rationalized their imperial project remains open to conjecture, but this is unquestionably one of the novel's achievements, and every episode contributes to the critique. As an example - doubtless not the subtlest - consider the Revd Macfarlane, a semi-defrocked missionary working in Bombay whose wife shelters the Hero during what we might call his chrysalis phase. The reverend has lost his faith in the God of his sect, and replaced it with faith in a god of science, to wit, craniometry, the tendentious study of human skulls that throughout the nineteenth century tempted white men into believing that their mastery over the other peoples of the world had a biological justification - whatever that might really mean. Nobody, in those days, could have admitted the truth established in our own time by Jared Diamond: that it was guns, germs and steel, rather than providence, that assured European predominance in all cross-cultural encounters. The English imperialists couldn't just be stronger; they had to be better as well. And this, as critics of Empire from Conrad on discovered, only made them worse. 

Incidentally, 'The Impressionist' inspired something that had never occurred to me before. The old aristocracies of Europe were made up of families that traced their origins to Frankish or other Teutonic invaders.  (The English aristocracy liked to think of itself as Norman - Viking French, in other words.) The very origins of European identity rest on the assumption, rarely stated but always implicit, that the 'locals,' the people who were there first, didn't measure up to the strong men who swept in on horseback and restored the order that had been lost with the old Roman empire. Now, what do we find, in the wake of the democratizing trauma of the French Revolution, but the adoption of this idea by all educated Europeans, this time with respect to the whole world? Just as Dark Age Franks had made nations out of Iberians and Gauls, Bavarians and Slavs, so Victorian Europeans would drag the primitives of the earth out of their caves and temples and into the modern world. And for most of these missionary Europeans, the 'natives' could never be equals, no matter how wealthy or well-educated. This was a kind of Eleventh Commandment throughout the Imperial Age, and Europeans who disagreed were cordoned off as radicals. (They were usually tarred with the charge of having 'gone native.') Just as no Anglo-Saxon could ever have become a Plantagenet, so no Hindu could ever become an Englishman. 

There are many Englishmen today, apparently, who still believe this, many Europeans who regard the children born in their country to immigrants from elsewhere as foreigners. But by setting his novel in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the twilight of empire, Hari Kunzru has freed himself of the problematics of bigotry. When both Indian and Englishman believe that the Englishman is better, where is the bigotry? That the English prejudice against Indians might be wrongheaded does not occur to the Hero of 'The Impressionist' until long after he has penetrated the supposedly impermeable boundaries. 

It is very hard to close without a saying word about 'gofo,' Kunzri's fantastically funny send-up of commodity futures trading. For the time being, a cheater will have to do: pages 291-297. One begins to understand why this form of enterprise did not take off in the West until the advent of the personal computer.  (July 2002)

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