Book review: Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

ALLAN Massie reviews Amit Chaudhuri’s novel about the literary experience

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri. Picture: Contributed
Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri. Picture: Contributed
Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri. Picture: Contributed

Odysseus Abroad,

Amit Chaudhuri

Oneworld. 241pp £14.99

Under the price tag on the front flap of the cover, appear the words “Literary Fiction”. Whether this is intended as an enticement or warning, it is a fair description. This is a very literary novel indeed, drenched in poetry and novels, English as well as Bengali (though for those of us unversed in Bengali, a glossary would have been handy).

Ananda is a student at London University, a shy young man, lonely and homesick. He is fascinated by London but uncomfortable with the English with only the rare exception such as one of his tutors, a South African-born novelist whom he finds sufficiently sympathetic to show him his poems.

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The first part of the novel describes in detail his lodging near Euston station, his wanderings around the streets, his various encounters, his shyness which prevents him from forming friendships with other students, his reading and his reflections on books, films, TV programmes. (He loves Postman Pat, Chaplin and twentieth century poetry. “Ananda often wanted to write Larkin’s poems – far more often than Larkin evidently did.” This is all charming, and indeed charm is the note struck time and again throughout the novel. There is no plot. There are no remarkable incidents. And yet you are likely to keep reading happily, with a smile on your face.

The uncle, or Bloom character, Radesh, is an engaging creation. The blurb describes him as “a magnificent failure”, which is not really accurate “and “an eccentric virgin”, which is. Actually, he has had a successful business career which ended when he took early retirement with a nice pay-off and pension; he is rich enough to provide financial support to members of the family still in India, while he himself chooses to live, as he has done for more than 30 years, in a Belsize Park bedsit where “dust had settled in an ashen nuclear winter on the table and chairs, and formed serpentine moustaches on the sides of walls”.

Like many who live alone, he has cultivated his odd individuality, holding strong, if shifting, opinion, and holding forth in an authoritative manner on all sorts of subjects. He tells Andna Aids is “a myth” (the novel is set in 1985). “These kind of diseases have been about for ever. I saw people dying in Sylhet – of sexual deviancy. They’ve put a fancy name to it.” He is happy to lay down the law about life on the “astral plane, and to declare that his nose becomes larger when he eats too much before adding that “a large nose is a sign of virility” – even though there is no evidence of virility in his own life, and indeed Ananda, often exasperated by his uncle, even while he relishes him and depends on him in his own loneliness, thinks that lack of experience is no bar to making grand pronouncements. Radesh “always sounded more experienced than he could possibly be”, we are told, “as if he had recourse to some other source of information outside reading, education, and life …”

This is a novel about the immigrant experience. Though Ananda, as a well-educated student without financial worries and with no need to look for even temporary employment, is much better situated than most, his shy and puzzled responses to cultural differences must be common to many. He lives simultaneously in two worlds as indeed his uncle still does even after spending almost all his adult life in London. Chaudhuri is alert to cultural differences, and his judgments on these are uniformly generous. He is as aware of Ananda’s and Radesh’s absurdities as he is
of the oddities of English life and the bizarre face it presents to the incomer.

It’s a comic novel and, as I remarked, a very literary one too, as one might expect from an author who is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia. The wit is acute but the comedy is essentially gentle and this is because Chaudhuri evidently feels an affection for his characters which the reader is likely to share.