Never Not Slightly Comical
- Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
Oneworld, 243 pp, £12.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 1 78074 621 0
The meanings that the word abroad has accumulated since it was first used to mean ‘widely scattered’ include: ‘out of one’s house’ (Middle English), ‘out of one’s native land’ (late Middle English), ‘at large, freely moving about’ (late 15th century) and ‘confused, dazed, astray, wide of the mark’ (early 19th century). All of them are present in the title of Amit Chaudhuri’s intelligent and funny new novel, which follows a young Bengali man and his uncle on their uneventful wanderings around London on a mid-1980s summer’s day. Homer and Joyce are clearly present, too, but Ananda isn’t impressed by Homer, ‘noting that the “rosy-fingered dawn” recurred without volition, like a traffic light, every few pages of the Iliad, and, with greater fascination – salivating, even, because he was often hungry – how the soldiers feasted on pork “singed in its own fat” at regular intervals.’ He once got a kebab from a Greek takeaway on Charlotte Street: ‘It was odd how quickly the meat became cold and lumpy: masticated chunks settled in his stomach, allaying the restive juices. He wondered if the food at the takeaway was below par, or whether Homer had overrated the soldiers’ repasts.’ As for the Odyssey, ‘he hadn’t bothered to read’ it, though Chaudhuri clearly has.
There may be much that is autobiographical in the novel: Chaudhuri, like his Telemachus/Stephen Dedalus figure, was a student in London in the 1980s. But there’s enough distance for the writer to see the character with a balance of ironic detachment and generosity. Any portrait of the artist as a young man runs the risk of either taking its subject too seriously or ridiculing him too mercilessly; Chaudhuri steers a careful middle course. (Scylla and Charybdis? If you like. The other approach is to do both, remorselessly, so they cancel each other out. That’s the tack taken by Coetzee in Youth,[*] another downbeat, virtuoso account of a young man from a former British colony abroad, in every sense, in London.)
There is no dawn, rosy-fingered or otherwise, in Odysseus Abroad. ‘He got up at around nine o’clock with the usual feeling of dread,’ the novel begins. Twenty-two years old, an undergraduate in the UCL English Department, Ananda lives in a bedsit on Warren Street. Lonely and adrift in Bloomsbury, he writes poems, sings ragas, eats Chinese takeaway food, takes indigestion tablets, masturbates. He never gets enough sleep, because he keeps to a different timetable from the other people who live in the house. The title of the first chapter compares his neighbours to Penelope’s suitors. The Patel brothers upstairs, who have come to London to study management, start listening to ‘a new kind of music called “rap”’ late at night; the young woman downstairs would ‘come home at three in the morning, shut the door with a bang, turn on cheery music. She told him that she did her aerobic exercises at that hour.’ He complains about the rap and the cheery music; they complain about his singing in the morning. None of them changes their habits.
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