Doing justice to the mess

Jonathan Coe

  • Afternoon Raag by Amit Chaudhuri
    Heinemann, 133 pp, £3.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 434 12349 8

The triumphs of this novel are at once tiny and enormous. Tiny because, like its predecessor A Strange and Sublime Address, it tells only of a placid and uneventful life, a life of domesticity, routine and small daily rituals, in which a ride on a bus or a rendezvous in a café is the closest we are likely to come to adventure; enormous because Chaudhuri has once again turned this unspectacular material into something enchanting, studded with moments of beauty more arresting than anything to be found in a hundred busier and more excitable narratives. Part of the reader’s exhilaration, for that matter, derives from our awareness that the substance of the book is so perilously thin: as we watch Chaudhuri weave such intricate patterns from it, the pleasure we take in his daredevilry is analogous to the excitement of hearing a virtuoso raag singer performing an act of controlled improvisation.

Picking up hints from blurbs and press information, it’s impossible not to suspect a very substantial autobiographical element in Chaudhuri’s work. He was born in Calcutta and brought up in Bombay: A Strange and Sublime Address was about an animated, sensitive boy vacillating between these two cities, growing up in a vibrant family atmosphere and diligently familiarising himself with the English language so that he can one day become a writer (albeit a writer of horror stories). More recently he has been living in Oxford, first as a research student and then as Creative Arts Fellow at Wolfson College: and sure enough. Afternoon Raag now celebrates the uniqueness and the quiet pleasures of student life, with its ‘different rooms, its temporary enclosures and crystallisations, its awareness and memory of furniture and windows and spaces’. The plotlessness of the book, and its evident grounding in the author’s own recent experience, could give rise to a certain amount of fruitless wrangling as to whether it should be described as a ‘novel’ at all: is it, in fact, anything more than a transmuted and highly embellished personal memoir? It’s not just the story that’s lacking, after all: there’s little in the way of characterisation, and hardly any variation in mood or tempo, the only contrast on offer being Chaudhuri’s insistent cross-cutting between Oxford and Bombay, where there are flashbacks to the narrator’s earlier family life. Most of the elements – and pleasures – which we traditionally associate with ‘fiction’ have therefore been done away with.

Really, then, Chaudhuri has only one of the novelist’s qualifications, but he has it in abundance, and it’s by far the most important, the one without which all the others become so much useless baggage: he is in love with life, and with people, and he can communicate this love directly and unsentimentally. Nothing is too small or too boring for him: he defamiliarises the everyday, reinvigorates the ordinary, and makes the humdrum seem exciting. When his narrator visits an Indian restaurant on the Cowley Road, he is characteristically forgiving of its seediness and marvels, instead, that its ersatz Orientalism should be so ‘generous with life’: and in that phrase Chaudhuri has also defined his own greatest gift as a writer.

This, for instance, is what he makes of an irresolute visit to a post office late in the day:

By evening ... there is hardly anyone left, and the main room looks large and peaceful in the glow of fluorescent lights; a few employees working overtime sit behind counters, looking as porters on a provincial railway-station do after a train has left, the sense of departure, of a world beyond this one, having disappeared into the ordinariness of another evening and night. I had my letter weighed and stamped, and then decided not to send it. The thin, bespectacled clerk, in whose frail hand the ancient stamp looked so heavy and powerful, said irritably: ‘You mean you want it back?’ He explained to me the rules governing such procedures; he became, temporarily, the voice of the General Post Office; but I only saw before me a middle-aged Bengali whom, I felt vaguely, I already knew from a previous encounter. The more he sensed my frustration, the more he protracted his lecture on a higher logic that transcended personal ideas of reasonableness; and when he handed me the letter, he had me take it out of the envelope, which he tore thoroughly with his own hands.

What’s remarkable about a passage like this is not only its economy when it comes to conveying the mood of contented desolation which pervades such places at such times, but also its ability to tease out subtle political undercurrents from an apparently simple human transaction. The disparity between the clerk’s thinness and frailness and the ‘ancient ... heavy ... powerful’ stamp which he’s employed to wield gives a very local instance of one of Chaudhuri’s most endearing qualities: his uncomplaining recognition of the smallness of each individual life (especially when pitted against the worlds of national and international politics, which are sometimes alluded to but which can never, in the milieux his characters inhabit, form the basis of anything more than bemused discussion). At the same time his adverb ‘temporarily’ offers a sly tilt at the ease with which people slip in and out of their different roles, adapting and discarding their mantles of power (Chaudhuri imposes great burdens of meaning on his adverbs, and sometimes over-uses them), and announces the arrival of an insidious irony which creeps up on us as the passage unfolds, with ‘lecture’, ‘logic’ and ‘transcended’ each getting more pointed.

Chaudhuri will only rarely make you laugh out loud, but irony and unobtrusive humour are central to his rendition of scenes like this. Afternoon Raag is never quite as funny as A Strange and Sublime Address (where I particularly treasure the tenderly witty detail of a young boy’s infatuation with a cross-eyed girl he meets in the marketplace: ‘he glanced back to find that she was looking at him; he could not be sure; the squint in her eye made it difficult to be sure. At any rate, one eye was looking at him, and the other was looking at the rest of the world’). It’s as if, not yet knowing Oxford as well as he knows Bombay or Calcutta, he remains slightly in awe of it, approaching it in a spirit of wonder which is refreshing – for until now the ‘Oxford novel’ had seemed to be more or less done for, killed off by a mixture of self-satisfaction and cynicism – but is not conducive to puncturing its absurdities. The behaviour of the English on their home territory is, perhaps, so enthrallingly peculiar that it stifles Chaudhuri’s laughter and leaves him with little to do but watch and record with rapt, minute fascination. The most irreverent jokes are reserved for Indian characters (like the doctor back home whose diagnosis is invariably ‘“There’s a virus in the air this time of the year,” but if one disagreed with him, he had no objection to changing it’) or even for birds and animals: Chaudhuri is a fine anthropomorphic observer of the animal kingdom, capable of ascribing motive and personality even to a pair of geese glimpsed wandering across the lawn outside his window, ‘like the first tourists to discover the town ... though each, doggedly, keeps its distance from the other, maintaining a tangential, somewhat covert, relationship with the other’s self-absorption, like the English couple, Henry and his wife, who are always separated by a few paces during their humdrum walks in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.’

This last reference is suggestive: partly because Chaudhuri has shown himself alert, throughout the book, to the ways in which his perceptions of England are filtered through films and television (the narrator spends his afternoons watching British films from the Forties and Fifties on Channel 4, and taking pleasure in being defeated at anagrams and number games by the contestants on daytime quiz shows, ‘sweet and harmless-looking people who had nevertheless used their empty hours to squeeze from themselves a razor-sharp competence in these matters’). More than that, however, it appropriately points up a line of affinity between Chaudhuri and Jacques Tati, two humane and diffident humourists who also happen to be rigorous seekers after perfection in their own work, and whose fundamentally stern moralism has less to do with authorial finger-wagging than with the unanswerable exactness with which they organise and present their material. One might invoke not only Monsieur Hulot but more specifically Playtime: the legendary care taken by Tati in setting up gags which were intended to hymn the virtues of chaos and improvisation finds an analogy in Chaudhuri’s long, beautifully crafted sentences, which give the impression of having been worked over for hours for no other purpose than to do justice to the mess and spontaneity of real life. And again we can see the influence here of his knowledge of the Indian raag, where the wandering, digressive melodies give an illusion of absolute freedom while in fact being anchored in formal patterns of a complexity without parallel in Western music.

None of which helps to answer the question which is bound to dog any reading of Afternoon Raag: namely, what is Chaudhuri going to do next? He has proved himself a consummate miniaturist, but even on this scale his books have a habit of running out of steam. Disconcertingly, A Strange and Sublime Address abandoned its family chronicle after 130 pages and metamorphosed without warning into a volume of short stories, while Afternoon Raag reaches its high point about halfway through, with an oblique and considerate scene of lovemaking (‘Our blinded gropings were more exploratory than passionate, for both of us were inexperienced, and a little afraid of what was supposed to happen at the end of this act ... Just above the bed there was a skylight that let a glow into the room, so that we could see each other’s outlines, and the reassuring shapes of certain objects’). After that, the novel seems to have no final destination in mind, and some of it – like the chapter about working-class Oxford, with its ‘aboriginal community’ of ‘white niggers’ – starts to read too much like dutiful reportage. Chaudhuri has already proved that he can write better than just about anyone of his generation, and in that respect his first two novels are unlikely to be improved upon. The problem is the lack of a shaping narrative and the question of whether he will be able to carry on transferring to a new location every few years. He has now been awarded a studentship to Cambridge, so perhaps that will be next.