Never Not Slightly Comical

Thomas Jones

  • 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.

The day in question is Friday, 19 July 1985, six days after Live Aid. Ananda is still angry about the spectacle at Wembley. His friend Mark defends it on the grounds that ‘any kind of effort that brings relief to Africa is all right.’ But Ananda wonders if it’s possible to ‘make an aesthetic objection … All those people cheering and dancing … all of them thinking that by dancing to the music they were doing those starving children a good turn … it made it quite wrong and macabre somehow, especially when you saw the faces of the children.’ Ananda imagines he’s the only person in London, or anywhere, who thinks this way about the concert, and his ‘position on this matter underlined to him his isolation from the world’. But there’s another reason for his dejection: his mother, who was visiting, left eight days before, and he misses her more than he wants to admit.

Chaudhuri is a master of the inconsequential detail, or rather of describing quotidian, often overlooked details that matter to the character observing or experiencing them, or take on a new consequence in his describing of them. Ananda makes himself a mug of tea for breakfast:

He stirred the milk in the mug, till, turning from clear but dark to pale brown and neutrally uniform, the water had become tea-like, the spoon negotiating the vortex it had set in motion by constantly evading, and sometimes colliding into, the submerged leviathan tea bag. Then he’d retrieved it from the pool on to his spoon, at once swollen and unresistant, dead but still smoking, an incredibly ugly thing. Unable to look at it, he tossed it into the bin.

He shows a similar fastidiousness in his language, which has a precision that can tend towards the pedantic or pompous. He is inclined to use words that are too precise in themselves, but not precise enough in relation to what they are meant to define: ‘repasts’ instead of meals, ‘exacerbated’ instead of exasperated – these are precision tools misapplied. But the pedantry and pomposity, deliberate or not on Chaudhuri’s part, are in character: Ananda’s a fan of P.G. Wodehouse as well as Keats.

When he eventually makes it out of the house Ananda goes to see his tutor, Nestor Davidson, an affectionate portrait of the late Dan Jacobson, who taught Chaudhuri at UCL. ‘It became evident very early that Mr Davidson and Ananda found the same kinds of thing funny.’ They talk about Ananda’s poems. ‘I enjoyed them,’ Davidson says. ‘Not so good,’ Ananda thinks. ‘The term “enjoy” was imprecise, worrying, insincerely mollifying, vaguely insulting.’ Unsurprisingly (or not), given that he’s an Eng. Lit. student, a lot of Ananda’s thoughts are about literature. He has appealingly strong prejudices about the English canon: ‘Medieval England didn’t attract him; not Gawain, not Piers Plowman’; ‘the deliberately histrionic (Byron and Browning) he avoided.’ Davidson tells him he ought to read Moll Flanders, Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre (‘Another children’s book!’), Sons and Lovers: ‘At last, a novel that didn’t originate in antiquity! Bursting with sex too, from what Ananda had heard.’ Chaudhuri wrote his doctoral thesis on D.H. Lawrence.

Like Stephen Dedalus, Ananda shares his thoughts on Shakespeare, but instead of coming out with biographical speculations about Hamlet he muses on the language of Sonnet 18 (a reflection of the difference in scale between Ulysses and Odysseus Abroad). ‘On reading the poem … in Bombay in his school textbook, he’d decided it was stupid; silly, even.’ In India, ‘summer’ was a ‘dead word’; ‘only after coming to England had he discovered the beauty’ of it. ‘It was the fragility and the undependability of the English summer that Shakespeare was drawing the reader’s attention to.’ The historical or geographical context in which words are read matters as much as the context in which they are written. The close reading extends to children’s TV:

Ananda loved the way Postman Pat’s van appeared, like a private revelation, muffled yet exact, a speck of red on the hill, moving, disappearing, until it appeared again, closer this time. He was oddly touched by this trickery … Paucity of means and of technology – that was it; that was what brought to these programmes their peculiar but unmissable artistry … Art was synonymous with impediment.

The impediments or constraints that Chaudhuri imposes on himself in Odysseus Abroad include restricting the narrative to a single point of view (Ananda’s), observing the classical unities of time and place (one day in London), and not so much a unity as a nullity of action.

Ananda’s sense of isolation or dislocation from the world is apparent in his attitude to politics. He ‘was disengaged from Indian politics but dilettantishly addicted to British politicians … It was a great spectacle, British politics,’ which he watches as if it belonged to only a slightly different category from Postman Pat and Mr Benn. He finds the real thing far more entertaining than Spitting Image, which strikes him as satirising a world that has already satirised itself. There’s something slightly unnerving about this view (‘can one make an aesthetic objection?’), coming as it does a few sentences after a facetious description of ‘the indomitable grocer’s daughter unleashing policemen on horses on the miners’. Still, Ananda’s vantage point as a detached observer allows him insights that wouldn’t be available to him if he felt more implicated in the society he’s living in, or alongside: ‘Class was what formed you, but didn’t travel to other cultures – it became invisible abroad. In foreign places, you were singled out by religion and race, but not class, which was more indecipherable than any mother tongue. He’d learned that not only were light, language and weather contingent – class was too.’ There could be freedom in this, but Ananda doesn’t feel it that way.

After leaving his tutor, he goes to pay his rent – he finds his landlord in one of the restaurants he also owns, and the smell of tandoori chicken revives Ananda’s constant hunger – then takes the Tube to Belsize Park to see his uncle, Radhesh, his mother’s brother, who rents a bedsit in the same house he’s lived in since coming to London in the late 1950s. He used to live on the first floor, but was moved down to the basement when the upstairs ceiling needed repairs. Ananda’s parents had lived in the house first, in the other first-floor bedsit: Radhesh was Ananda’s father’s best friend before he was his brother-in-law, and when he came to London he moved into their house, and then into their old bedsit when they went back to India before Ananda was born. Their relationship was tangled, or at least seemed so to Radhesh: ‘They were three. But who was the third? … The answer was unarguable, and only an idiot like him would take so long to figure it out … He was alone, despite the illusion of togetherness.’ Still jealous of his sister’s ‘dispersed’ fidelities, he looks on Ananda (or so Ananda thinks) as a rival.

Radhesh opens the door to his nephew still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown. He greets him using ‘Ananda’s ignominious pet name’, Pupu, and before long is regaling him with the details of his digestion:

‘In the office, I seldom went to the toilet to do the big job, in case someone outside the cubicle heard me breaking wind.’ He made a face to indicate that that would have been a calamity. Then narrowed his eyes, conceding he was oversensitive. But he was also hinting at the stubbornness of the powers-that-be, that rule our lives and the universe. The gods. Aeolus. Wind.

Chaudhuri’s debt to Joyce could hardly be plainer, though the Bloomishness of Radhesh’s exasperating vitality is entirely unconscious on the character’s part (and they have their differences; Radhesh is neurotically celibate, partly out of a fear of contracting syphilis, which Ananda finds ridiculous, though he too is a virgin and is terrified of Aids). Radhesh’s literary opinions are even more stringent than his nephew’s. Ananda ‘tried his hand at Ulysses when he was 18, and reached its finale without comprehending it’, but the only Anglophone novelist his uncle reads is Stephen King, and even that is a recently acquired taste. For Radhesh, ‘dismissive as he was of modernism’, there is only one real writer: ‘English poets couldn’t match Tagore for his finesse. European poets largely didn’t exist. And no Bengali poet … could avoid visiting a tone and terrain that was already Tagore’s.’ It’s a judgment that most of Chaudhuri’s readers aren’t qualified to have a view on. ‘Can you read Bengali?’ Radhesh asks his nephew towards the end of the day. ‘A little,’ Ananda confesses (many of the ragas he sings are by Tagore). To those of us who can’t understand a word of it, whose knowledge of language and literature is shamefully Eurocentric, the ‘confession’ is a rebuke, however gentle.

They go out for tea in Hampstead. One of the many unacknowledged reasons that Ananda goes to Belsize Park is all the free food on offer. He is entirely financially dependent on his uncle, who pays his university tuition and rent as well as providing what little cash he has for daily expenses. In return, Ananda’s father has taken on Radhesh’s monthly disbursements to his relatives in Calcutta and Shillong. ‘In this manner, [India’s] Foreign Exchange Regulations Act was subverted but not exactly flouted, and Amanda’s low-key, apparently purposeless education was made possible.’ In the tea shop, Radhesh insists on footing the bill, as if there were a chance that Ananda might try to get it himself: ‘His uncle would pay – they both knew that. Yet his uncompromising air allowed Ananda to feel the glow of love – an avuncular love that was never not slightly comical.’

The last episode is called ‘Ithaca’. It’s an ambiguous title, implying homecoming, but where are Ananda and Radhesh coming home to? They go to Ananda’s bedsit, then head out into Fitzrovia to find somewhere to eat, and end up at the Gurkha Tandoori on Whitfield Street, where the waiter offers them a table for two in a Sylheti accent:

Ananda felt he was near home. Not home in Bombay: his parents didn’t speak Sylheti in that large-hearted peasant way; their accent was slightly gentrified. Not Warren Street of course. Not Sylhet, either – he’d never been there and didn’t particularly regret it. Maybe some notion of Sylhet imparted to him inadvertently by his parents – as an emblem of the perennially recognisable … And the perennially comic.

But there’s also a sense in which he feels at home, more than he can admit, in his uncle’s perennially comic company. Back at the bedsit again after supper, Ananda puts the TV on to watch Rising Damp. Radhesh, trying to get his nephew to change the channel, says that he prefers tragedy to comedy. ‘By “tragedy” his uncle meant B-grade action movies – that is, a narrative with dead bodies … he had no time for plot and was placated as long as periodic killings occur.’ Chaudhuri’s novels – no plot, no killings – would go halfway to pleasing him. Uncle and nephew both enjoy Bond movies, though. ‘Last week, witnessing again with concern Roger Moore get into all sorts of scrapes but surviving them to brush the dust off his jacket and straighten his tie, Ananda’s uncle had leaned towards him and murmured: “Pupu, what would we do in such a situation? We’d be hopeless!”’ But who wouldn’t be? The things that Ananda and Radhesh think make them different are the things that make them like everyone else.