Monday 23 October 2017

Indian author borrows structure of 'Ulysses'

Fiction Odysseus Abroad Amit Chaudhuri Oneworld, hdbk, 256pp, £14.99 Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

Francesca Wade

Amit Chaudhuri's sixth novel, part autobiographical fiction, part literary game, takes its structure from Ulysses and follows a 22-year-old University College of London student called Ananda through one day in 1985.

Ananda, who left India two years earlier, is an aspiring poet, partial to afternoon bouts of children's television.

He leaves his Warren Street bedsit to wander through Bloomsbury for a brief tutorial with Nestor Davidson (a delightful character based, Chaudhuri has admitted, on his own undergraduate tutor). He spends the rest of the afternoon visiting his uncle.

Beyond this, the novel is essentially plotless: its driving forces are the minutiae of Ananda's day and his meditations on the London he sees through Indian eyes.

Chaudhuri is incisive and humorous on the experience of moving from a former colony to 1980s London, and subtly questions the concept of cultural tradition.

Unlike his uncle, Ananda feels excluded from English life - or perhaps, as the narrator suggests, he "chose to be excluded; it gave his drift and insignificance meaning in his own eyes". There's a hint of hindsight as Chaudhuri ascribes some romantic posturing to his alter ego.

Ananda eschews pre-20th century literature in order "to be unshackled from the study of the past", preferring novels that examine "modern man - strange creature!"

But while Ananda claims never to have read the Odyssey nor to have understood Ulysses, a reader with classical knowledge will enjoy the myriad Odyssean correspondences.

The "bloody suitors" are noisy tenants upstairs who play "a new kind of music called 'rap' "; while the "abattoir-like entrance of Belsize Park Tube station" becomes Hades, swarming with lost souls.

Some small details particularly thrill: Ananda fishing out the "submerged leviathan tea bag" from his mug; a politely passive-aggressive Indian waiter. But occasionally Chaudhuri's attempts to follow Joyce and distil beauty from mundanity fall flat.

While Soho is conjured evocatively ("obscure guitar shops in by-lanes, and Foyles, civilised sentinel"), Fitzrovia, portrayed as a catalogue of tandoori restaurants, never really comes to life. A smattering of inconsistencies are puzzling - and I'd like to know how Chaudhuri makes his bed, because Ananda's routine is confusing (he straightens his duvet before smoothing the sheet).

Such cavils make no difference to the plot, but in a novel deliberately constructed of everyday trivialities, we must be sure whether to doubt the narrator's reliability or that of the writer.

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