The Impressionist

Hari Kunzru’s tale of a pale skinned Indian boy who has trouble fitting in was enjoyable, although it didn’t quite feel finished. I didn’t realise before I started it (or until about halfway through, to be honest) that it’s another post-colonial allegory in novel form, although this one is set in early twentieth century India.

SPOILER:

So, this really spoiled it for me, but maybe it won’t for anyone else. The back cover gave the impression that he would end up experimenting with roles on his journey, but he never really did that, it was more a case of trying to figure out how people expected him to act, which is slightly different. Also, most of the groundwork for each successive move is laid beforehand – learning English from a slightly dodgy Scottish missionary is certainly useful when he comes to England, for example, so it never really came as much of a surprise, which I guess I was hoping for.

END SPOILER.

Having said that, the book is full of interesting characters who aren’t always what they seem, which I greatly enjoyed. I probably liked the Scottish missionary best, but that’s most likely because he plays up to some of my prejudices about missionary life and missionary zeal. But he’s also a tragic figure, lost in a world he can’t understand, a trait that he has in common with a lot of the other westerners. The Indians generally have slightly more self awareness – maybe this is accurate, but I’m not sure. I don’t know much about Hari Kunzru’s biography, but I feel this is slightly romanticising, since he grew  up in England.

There are a lot of entertaining set pieces, too – too many to list, but I really enjoyed the the tiger hunt. (I thought the African tribe was a childish piece of extended punning, though, and shouldn’t really have been allowed.) But the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together right. Too many of the transitions from one identity to another are too lightly skipped over and come gift-wrapped at exactly the right point in Pran’s narrative. And the world is full of books with disappointing endings, but this one just peters out into nothing – almost literally. I get the feeling this could have been a really excellent book with a bit more polish work – as it is, I found it a set of interesting characters and scenes with an overall story and message that doesn’t quite stick.

See also:

Wizard of the Crow – seriously, what are the chances of readinf two books like this so close together?

A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh – I had so much trouble figuring out what this book was. Set in similar eras, I think, and similar endings.

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