The Indian-born poet (The Golden Gate, 1986) and novelist (A Suitable Boy, 1993) extends his already impressive range with this replete family memoir.
It’s the story of Seth’s London-based great-uncle (his grandfather’s brother) Shanti Behari Seth and Shanti’s German-Jewish wife Hennerle (“Henny”), with whom young “Vicky” lived when he came from Calcutta to attend university in London in 1969. Part One of this most artfully constructed book juxtaposes Seth’s own somewhat discordant educational and career experiences, while affectionately portraying the personality traits (Uncle Shanti’s kindhearted fussiness, Aunt Henny’s slightly nervous dignified reserve) that somehow made them a perfectly matched couple. Then, following her death and his decade of bereavement, Seth explores Shanti’s life (details provided by both “interviews” and correspondence): his studies in 1930s Berlin, patient courtship of Henny Caro (who would not marry him until many years later), departure for England when Third Reich regulations disallowed Shanti from practicing his chosen profession of dentistry and wartime service, during which an exploded shell destroyed his right arm. The absorbing third section is Henny’s story, told mostly through the agonized letters she exchanged with family and friends in wartime Germany, after she had emigrated to England. Marred only by a ten-page digression in which Seth analyzes German culture and history’s “possible influence in the present century,” this is an immensely moving narrative: a splendid small book within a book. Subsequently, Seth details Shanti’s and Henny’s expatriate marriage, then leaps ahead to Shanti’s ailing, deranged last years alone (he died shortly before his 90th birthday), concluding with a summation of their story’s relationship to Seth’s own life—which he has undertaken to explore in “a double biography, an intertwined meditation, where the author is an anomalous third braid.” Seth’s voice is a fluent, graceful and compassionate one, and the story he tells—in a sense, it’s every family’s story—should have irresistible appeal.
Another triumph for one of the most versatile and engaging of all contemporary writers.