It took another day of fever to get through Hari Kunzru’s impressive first novel, The Impressionist, published in 2002, and it was a pleasant and therapeutic enough read, with most of the graces – the laugh-out-loud farcical moments à la John Irving, the sustained tongue-in-cheek tone and its many verbal delights – fading noticeably in the second half of the book, to be replaced by over-intellectual concerns and a less dazzling prose.
In a way, this is a paradoxical work, in which many secondary characters are more vividly brushed in and more memorable than the retreaded palimpsest at the core of the book through its improbable impersonations. The search of identity is writ large, of course, along with several other themes – racism, miscegenation, the racial hypocrisy of colonialism in India and its legacy, the noxious influence of social pressure on the individual, the vain pursuit of cultural transmigration – and the smorgasbord of human foibles – infatuation, ambition, greed, hypocrisy and so on – painted with sometimes less than subtle strokes when the purpose seems to be to make you laugh rather than think.
The plot is fiendishly inventive and the pace swift, enough to keep you turning the pages for the next metamorphosis of our half-breed antihero, from the double colonial India (of the rulers and the ruled) to frigid and cozy Britain of academe to an Africa of the mind that flounders on caricature and derision. Inventing a whole tribe of inheritance speculators there to take the mickey out of the Stock Exchange of seventy years later does nothing to alleviate the dullness of the African pages as against the heat and brawl and stink of Indian scenes and in particular the Amritsar massacre, whose adroit and refreshingly blunt evocation here is a kind of snub to the likes of Paul Scott or EM Forster.
For all that, I shouldn’t belittle the pleasure I had reading this crisp witty prose, and I shall certainly look out for Kunzru’s later novels, Transmissions and My Revolutions.