This already much-touted first novel, a major international commercial success, is its Anglo-Kashmiri author’s refreshingly original variation on the traditional theme of a young man’s education.
The protagonist is Indian-born Pran Nath Razdan, ostensibly the son of a prosperous Hindu lawyer, but in fact the biracial product of his late (“mad”) mother’s single illicit encounter with an English adventurer (also deceased). When the truth is learned, 15-year-old Pran is exiled (in 1918) from “his father’s” lavish home in Agra (near the Taj Mahal), wanders the city’s meaner streets, then is abducted and sold as a “hijra” (or “boy-girl” prostitute) to an epicurean Nawab. Attracting the attention of pedophilic Major Privett-Clampe, Pran (who easily “passes” for white) survives by his wits and his astonishing good looks, moving on to Bombay, where he’s accepted as “Robert” by Scottish missionary Andrew Macfarlane and his wife Elspeth (grieving the deaths of two soldier sons in battle) – and as “Pretty Bobby” by the Bombay whores who employ him as an errand boy. As Britain’s control of India becomes increasingly shaky, “Bobby” (who finds he’s repeatedly “free to reinvent himself”) appropriates the identity of a drunken young Englishman who’s the victim of mob violence, and travels to London as “Jonathan Bridgeman.” From there he progresses to private school and university (Oxford), a frustrated affair with would-be demimondaine Astarte Chapel, and, as assistant to her father (a famous “Africanist” anthropologist), goes to West Africa to study the ecology of the Fotse tribe, where Pran/Bobby/Jonathan assumes yet another (transfiguring) identity. Echoes of Waugh, Kipling, Bowles, and Rushdie (and perhaps a minor debt to Michael Pye’s Taking Lives) aside, this is a very considerable achievement: a romantic-satiric saga enlivened by Kunzru’s sophisticated prose and urbane omniscient narrative voice. Its only significant flaws are a rather rapid march through some key episodes and some heavy-handed satire on colonialism at its most arrogantly obtuse.
Dazzling, nonetheless. Look for The Impressionist among next year’s Booker prize nominees.