In this elusive, evocative fiction, a novelist’s visit to his boyhood hometown of Bombay calls up memories of a longtime friend and a recent terrorist episode.
Returning to “the city of my growing up,” the narrator learns that Ramu, an old schooldays friend he counted on seeing and regards as “what survives of the familiar” in Bombay, is in rehab. So he carries on with the main business of his visit, which is a reading from his latest novel. The narrator, who bears the author’s name, concedes that “my writing is accused of coming directly from life.” Later he’ll say he is working on a book called Friend of My Youth that he’s “pretty sure” is a novel. Novelists used to be coy about what was autobiographical in their fiction, and now what looks like autobiography is called autofiction. Chaudhuri's (Odysseus Abroad, 2015, etc.) seventh novel doesn't submit to one label, offering instead a medley of genres, from journal to travelogue to essay and memoir but little in the way of straightforward fiction. The narrator navigates streets and sites and the memories they kindle, many of which concern Ramu, a longtime heroin user. The writer gives an interview, visits a bookstore. The story is awash in mundane details, but the narrator is always sifting through them for resonance as he also sifts through different pasts. So he runs an errand for his wife and mother at an upscale shoe shop in the Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the targets of the terrorist attacks on the sea-swept city in 2008, when “men with AK-47s alighted from dinghies.” The narrator ponders the work of repairing the raids’ damage, connects it to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and a passage from Walter Benjamin on the painting that flows smoothly back into terrorism and the Taj. The gray matter’s colorful play recalls Virginia Woolf’s disingenuous disclaimer early in A Room of One’s Own: “I give you my thoughts as they came to me.”
Anything but a conventional novel, its pleasures arise from a craftsman’s writing and its subtle demands and rewards.