I read The impressionist, by Hari Kunzru, a somewhat funny, somewhat ironical, somewhat depressing long novel about the life of a young boy, and later a young man, as he develops from a rich indian boy to a slave and then a respected Englishman.
The book starts very childish, with an intrigue which is totally unbelievable and very improbable: during a storm and a flood, an Englishman and an indian woman are near to death, and the Indian woman who was bound to get married by the wish of her family, seduces the Englishman, who immediately dies, and she gets immediately pregnant, and the result of this encounter is our main hero, known initially as Pran Nath, bastard son of a wealthy Indian man, known to everyone except to him that he is a half breed and not by any chance his son.
Except the satirical start of the novel, the rest of the book focuses on some very interesting and important aspects of the early 20th century, in several chapters, which I will comment below.
Initially, Pran Nath, at the age of 14, is cast away from his father’s home, as his mad hypochondriac father passes away as a cause of his imaginary illnesses. Pran is young, scared, not used with not having everything, and he ends up giving up everything for a warm place and food.
He becomes scavenged by the body sellers, and he becomes a child prostitute, for the craving desires of the wealthy people in Bombay. He is drugged, abused, and then used to frame the English governor who becomes infatuated with him, after being infatuated with young boys.
This part of his life is known as Rukhsana, as this is the girl name that the boy receives. In this chapter we see a lot about what happens to both men and women who are sent away from Great Britain, to India, to get responsibilities , a life here, things that most of them perhaps never desired, and how this life ends in destroying their marriage, their self-esteem and turning them into low life drunks and child abusers.
Rukhsana manages to run, to escape this life, and becomes Pretty Bobby, a young boy who is liked by everyone, taken into care by the English reverend and especially his wife, who turns her attention to him from her lost loved boys who died in the first world war.
Pretty Bobby has a very good life, has money, runs errands for people, enjoys life, finds girlfriends, and lives many incognito lives with the strangers arriving in Bombay, learning to lie, to pretend, to make small thievery, to fool people into doing what he wants. He starts acting like a city guide, especially to brothers, restaurants, hotels, and other fancy activities. He falls for a girl that hangs only with rich people, a type of escort girl, but she ignores him and breaks his heart, by not believing any of his feelings. This is the first adolescent love and disappointment in Bobby’s life, leaving him bitter.
Once the reverend’s home is burned and his wife taken into custody, Bobby finds a young Englishman bound to return to England, who was never there before, with no relatives whatsoever, and with a good inheritance from his dead father, once he becomes of age. The turn of events leave this Jonathan dead, with a half-destroyed passport, only for Bobby to take his place and embark on his new journey towards England.
In this chapter we see again the hard life of the missionaries and their families, once they get to another continent, to another country and climate, their mission to adapt and survive without the conditions of the English capital.
Jonathan goes to England, scared to not be discovered, but the English snobbery keeps him safe. He goes to a private school and becomes an intern, where he learns the English ways and tries to become really English. He learns to dress English, to act English, to talk English, to love the king, and soon, his new identity is his new skin.
Things change when he falls in love again for a girl at the University, Astarte Chapel, who is the model of the pure adolescent feminine mystery, the reckless girl, the undecided girl, the never ending story of the cat and mouse, similar character with Veronica in Julian Barnes’ The sense of an ending .
He follows Astarte (nickname Star) everywhere, waits for her months when she is leaving to Paris without notice, gets involved with her father who is a crazy anthropologist in love with the Fotse people in Africa. He even agrees to embark with him on a journey to visit the Fotse.
He starts a romantic relationship with Star, and he plans to propose to her, but he leaves him again, and next time they see each other, she is with another guy, an Afro-American, who is , as described by Star, something that Jonathan could never be: a person that lived on the street, that had a harsh life, that was abused, and that has a huge story to tell.
The irony in this is complete, even when Jonathan wants to tell her the truth, he is not even listened to.
He eventually goes to Africa to the Fotse people, being too depressed to act for himself, only to find there the poverty and the life he always ran away from, but he is the only one to survive, by getting closer to the Fotse people, who save him from illness, but let the other English people die.
Jonathan starts most likely a new life, having so many identities during his short young life, that he finds very hard to relate to, and to identify himself with something. Being cast away from everywhere and everyone he has been with, he embarks on a new journey, not knowing where future will lead him.
The impressionist is a long novel, that presents many aspects of life, many of them in irony or satire, but overall a good book, about outcasts and the return to roots, for all of us.