Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

07/02/15, The Guardian

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. These books – written, one can hazard, out of life – have appeared to be beautiful, intensely observed, yet static, inconsequential, more mood-pieces, or a miniaturist’s art, than novels. These were predictable murmurings. That Chaudhuri has been pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel, has not perhaps been obvious from the very beginning; 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 twenties, 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 step out to have dinner at a curry house, after which they saunter back to Ananda’s room. That’s it. Yet everything happens in these two hundred pages and on different levels. Let’s call one level phenotype, the visible, expressed level of the story, and the other, more crucial one, genotype, the book’s invisible hereditary information.

The level of the story first. Adhering closely almost for 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 her son, to the annoyance caused by his noisy neighbours – it is all rendered beautifully in Chaudhuri’s signature sentences, elegant and classical, rich in parentheses, sub-clauses 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, fifty-something, unmarried (a virgin, even), wealthy, simultaneously generous and parsimonious, supporting a network of relatives back in India with the sizeable pension from his early retirement, who steals the show. The dynamics between uncle and nephew, affected profoundly by the complex triangulation between Radhesh (Rangamama’s real name), his sister (Ananda’s mother), and his brother-in-law – a long history before Ananda existed – are attritive yet affectionate, playful, complicated, and brilliantly done. Chaudhuri gives each of them complex, nuanced pasts, staggered artfully through the book, and even touches wittily upon 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 funny and 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 Abroad is Chaudhuri’s conversation with Joyce’s Ulysses (and, therefore, inevitably, with Homer, too), an 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.

Rather, the more substantive relational affiliation occurs on the level of tradition and its appropriation. It is nothing less than an audacious and thrilling act of literary positioning, a mark on an existent map changed now by that very mark, which says, ‘Here I am.’ Among many things, this was one of the salient features of the modernist movement, a keen ‘historical sense’, as Eliot wrote, that ‘compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.’ The modernists’ own work was an intensely self-aware supervention within this order; Chaudhuri’s luminously intelligent novel, in its appropriation of a literary tradition that is both his and not his, is ineluctably modernist, too. In making Homer and Joyce speak in Bengali and in the English used by educated, cosmopolitan Bengalis, Odysseus Abroad has inserted itself, with wit, erudition and playfulness, into the map of modernism.