The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

IMG_1569 (2) Heaven knows how you ever come up with something this good, let alone at your first attempt. The Impressionist begins and ends with a lone man riding through a hostile landscape, and what happens in between is spectacularly ambitious and well-written. Pran Nath is born into luxury in India in the early 20th century, finds his circumstances suddenly changed, and begins several cycles of social rebirth. To survive, he in effect takes the imprint of every person and situation he meets and moulds his own being from it. He is ‘a creature of surface. Tissue paper held up to the sun’. And if he ‘makes himself invisible to others, shape-shifting, changing names and keeping his motives hidden, he does so no less to himself’. This will become, we suspect, something of a problem. After all, how do we negotiate life if nothing truthful actually exists of us? There is something to enjoy in virtually every other sentence, as Kunzru shifts voice at will. For example, a British government memo explaining a key point in the narrative, is described with the sort of mocking, eyebrow-raised irony that characterises much of the book. The memo ‘will be seen as forming the final and definitive word on the Fatehpur Incident, and will, needless to say, be incorrect in almost every particular’. Some amusing, footnote-ish tying up of not particularly loose ends will come from this section, just another small example of the playfulness with which Kunzru blesses his readers. Sold into prostitution (this bit is less grim than it perhaps should be), Pran becomes Rukhsana, embroiled in political manoeuvrings which involve closet photography, blackmail, British hypocrisy and a vital succession as the Raj drifts. After that he is Pretty Bobby before meeting the man who is to change everything, leading him to public school in Norfolk and Oxford University. The narrative loses impetus towards the end of this final incarnation: it’s a minor quibble since, even as the tone shifts to allow Pran to inherit the white man’s burden, Kunzru always confidently entertains. He apparently received a massive advance for this novel and I really couldn’t care less whether Hamish Hamilton made its money back. It was worth it.

 

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