Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
In what sense are Amit Chaudhuri’s plotless meditations novels? Nothing, after all, happens in them; pages are expended describing, in exquisite prose, the cursive curl of a letter, or someone dozing off. Written seemingly out of life, these books are beautiful, intensely observed, yet static and inconsequential – more mood pieces than novels. That Chaudhuri has been pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel, may not have been obvious from his early work, but nowhere is his project more apparent than in his latest, Odysseus Abroad.
Unfolding over the course of a single warm July day in London in 1985, the book follows a young Indian man, Ananda, in his early 20s, as he wakes up in his rented room in Warren Street, potters around, attends a tutorial – he is desultorily reading for a BA in English Literature – in UCL at midday, then goes to see his uncle, Rangamama, in the older man’s basement bedsit in Belsize Park. Uncle and nephew walk south for a bit, take the tube to Ananda’s, buying some Indian sweets en route, then go out to dinner at a curry house, after which they saunter back to Ananda’s room. That’s it. Yet everything happens in these 200 pages on different levels.
The level of the story first. Adhering closely for almost its entirety to Ananda’s point of view, the book necessarily gives him a rich, eloquent interiority. From his impatience with any pre-modernist literature, to his intense poetic ambitions (he wants to be another Larkin; there is a priceless account of a tutorial in which his poetic pretensions are gently sent up by his tutor); from his attachment to his mother, who has just returned home to India after a short visit, to the annoyance caused by his noisy neighbours: it is all rendered beautifully in Chaudhuri’s signature sentences. They are elegant and classical, rich in parentheses, subclauses and digressions; unexpected, surprising spaces open up within them to accommodate the ever‑present past and the infinite branching of thought.
But it is Rangamama, 50-something, unmarried (a virgin, even), wealthy, simultaneously generous and parsimonious, supporting a network of relatives in India with the sizeable pension from his early retirement, who steals the show. The dynamics between uncle and nephew, affected by the complex triangulation between Rangamama, his sister (Ananda’s mother), and his brother-in-law – a long history before Ananda existed – are playful, complicated and brilliantly done. Chaudhuri gives each of them a complex, nuanced past, staggered artfully through the book, and even touches on consequences resulting from the division of India that resonate in curry houses staffed by Sylhetis in London. One of the great surprises, given that the comic mode has not been Chaudhuri’s metier in the past, is how delightfully witty the novel is.
And then there is the invisible book, the spirit that animates Odysseus Abroad. There are clues everywhere as to its identity: in the title; in the chapter titles (Eumaeus, for example, or Ithaca); but, most importantly, in the third epigraph from Borges (“I believe our tradition is all of western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition … ”). Odysseus Abroadis Chaudhuri’s conversation with Joyce’s Ulysses (and, therefore, inevitably, with Homer, too); a homage and a love-letter, but also, crucially, an intervention. It is not simply a matter of the echoes between characters and situations in Chaudhuri’s novel on the one hand and Joyce’s and the Odyssey on the other, or of the symbolic and metaphorical correspondences between the works, however engaging the investigation of such mappings may be.
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